Belgium hope to hit the ground running but underdogs Italy resolute

Belgium coach Marc Wilmots has admitted his side must hit the ground running in Euro 2016 when they take on an Italy team looking to disprove their underdog status in their opening Group E encounter on Monday.

"A win would give us a lot of confidence while a defeat would shake everyone up a bit," Wilmots told reporters Sunday. "They're perhaps the most prestigious opponents (to meet) in the first game where typically you improve as you go along but we have to be in top form from the outset."

Belgium, ranked second in the world, are widely considered to be among the favourites for the tournament and begin against Italy in Lyon, in a group which also includes Sweden and Ireland.

And Wilmots warned that the Italians should not be underestimated despite many experts saying they were not at their best.

"I think they're even more dangerous when they've got their backs against the wall," Wilmots said. "They've got a top quality league, they've top quality players and they've got a coach (Antonio Conte) who will make them warriors."

Conte heaped praise on Belgium for having "some top players, some very talented youngsters with great footballing ability," but insisted he was looking forward to the contest.

"Tomorrow night's match is one of the most interesting in the competition, two sides who want to play football, to put on a show," he said.

Conte also dismissed reports that a fear Belgian spies was why his side did not train in the stadium before the match, instead preferring a morning session at their Montpellier base.

"We'll do likewise for the rest of tournament, we have done so in other qualifying matches and in friendlies. That's what I typically like to do," he said.

Veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon is about to begin his ninth major international competition aged 38 and the World Cup winner from 2006 was also bullish about Italy's chances.

"Occasionally you are the hammer and in other times you are the ... this doesn't mean sacrificial lamb, it's the hammer and the anvil really," he said. "Besides what you see on paper, you'll see the real outcome on the field.

"(We want to show) despite fact we don't necessarily start as one of the favourites that we will still be a competitive side."

And as he pointed out, this tournament is no stranger to shocks with supposed underdogs often snatching unexpected moments of glory.

"Over a longer period of time it's more natural that the strongest side usually prevails but in shorter competitions it's not always the case," Buffon explained. "We've had such examples in European Championships with Greece (2004) and Denmark (1992) back then."

Buffon was asked about his opposite number, Thibaut Courtios, who is 14 years his junior, and joked it was hard to compare them at that age - as he was too old now to remember it.

He then praised Courtois as the "benchmark" for youngsters currently growing up wishing to become goalkeepers.

Courtois and captain Eden Hazard are in the rare situation of having the chance to impress their future club boss in person on the international stage as Conte will take over at Chelsea next season.

"I'm very happy to play against my future manager and show him everything I'm capable of producing," said attacking midfielder Hazard, who added he wanted Conte to know he could "rely" on him next season.

Hazard acknowledged that "this was a moment everyone has been waiting for," as the star-studded Belgians search for a first international title but he also attempted to keep the mood light.

"I think there are two or three sides better equipped than we are," he said. "We're a little bit of an outsider, we haven't put any pressure on ourselves ... (but) we're clearly going to try to play the best tournament possible."

Last update: Sun, 12/06/2016 - 21:44

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