5 Belgium players to watch
LILLE, France (AP) — Belgium is facing Wales in a European Championship quarterfinal on Friday. Here are five Belgium players to watch:
Coming off a disappointing Premier League season with Chelsea, marred by a three-month layoff following knee surgery, Thibaut Courtois wants to cement his status as one of the best goalkeepers of his generation. He could hardly be blamed for conceding twice during Belgium’s below-par Euro 2016 opener against Italy. Courtois kept a clean sheet in all three games since, also denying Zlatan Ibrahimovic on several occasions during the Swede’s last international game.
Not just for his punk-style haircut or colorful throat tattoo, Radja Nainggolan has become one of the most eye-catching players of the Belgian team. The Roma midfielder is a key element to coach Marc Wilmots’ tactical approach, providing an invaluable link between defense and attack. He also scored the late goal for Belgium’s 1-0 win over Sweden. Nainggolan became the center of some off-field controversy when Italian media reported on his smoking habits. Coach Wilmots, however, said he was already aware, quipping “I make sure we always get him a room with a balcony so he doesn’t set off the fire alarm.”
What’s next for Eden Hazard? Improving with every game Belgium played this competition, he reached his peak with a dazzling performance in the last 16, highlighted by a superb solo run through the Hungarian defense on his way to Belgium’s third of four goals. However, he picked up a thigh injury that night which put a question mark behind his availability for the quarterfinal game against Wales. Some doubted coach Wilmots’ decision to make Hazard the team’s captain after injured Vincent Kompany was ruled out for Euro 2016. Hazard has often failed to replicate his stunning form at Chelsea when playing for the national team, but this time it might just be the other way round after a poor season in the Premier League.
KEVIN DE BRUYNE
Recovering from a knee injury and becoming a father in the early months of 2016, Kevin De Bruyne still has to get into his stride again. The Manchester City midfielder scored five times to help Belgium qualify for Euro 2016 but hasn’t found the net so far in France. Like the whole team, De Bruyne got better and delivered three assists in the games following to the struggle against a well-organized Italy. But Wales will likely field an equally tight defense to make life hard for him again.
Making the headlines this week for undergoing a medical examination possibly linked to a move to Chelsea, Michy Batshuayi is about to make his breakthrough for the national team. Yet to start a game for Belgium, the Marseille striker has been remarkably effective by scoring three goals in six rather short appearances for the team. Set up by Hazard, Batshuayi netted with his first touch of the ball in the last 16-game against Hungary and celebrated with a backflip. Coach Wilmots might stick with his first-choice striker Romelu Lukaku for now but Wales should be aware if Batshuayi comes on as a substitute once more.