The absence of two key midfielders will cast a shadow over Italy’s prospects in Euro 2016 while Belgium are viewed as the favorites to top Group E which also includes Sweden and Ireland.
As a traditional powerhouse, Italy will find it difficult to repeat their runner-up performance from four years ago as they have been hit by a string of injuries.
Head coach Antonio Contey is already resigned to playing without the injured Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti in midfield, who are both certain starters. Besides, veteran midfielder Andrea Pirlo, a master of moving the ball from a deep-lying position who plays in the Major League Soccer now, is also not in the squad.
The Azzurri will probably have to adopt a defensive strategy as they will be playing without a playmaker in France this summer.
According to the rule, with the 24 teams drawn into six groups in the 2016 European Championship, the top two of each group and the four best third-placed teams advancing to the round of 16. Compared to the short-handed Italy who have been down to the 12th place in world ranking, Belgium are more likely to seize the first ticket to the knockout stage.
Expectations have been running high for Marc Wilmots’ star-studded side since they ended a 12-year wait for major tournament appearance to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, in which they eventually progressed to the quarterfinals.
In the past two decades, Belgium have only managed two group stage appearances, in 1984 and in 2000. But, the “Red Devils” are now back to the world’s elite club with a handful of young talents.
In goal, Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet are both the first choices for Chelsea and Liverpool respectively. In midfield, Kevin De Bruyne is a key player to Manchester City while Eden Hazard is the same for Chelsea, not to mention Marouane Fellaini in Manchester United. On the frontline, Belgium boast big names including Romelu Lukaku of Everton, Christian Benteke and Divock Origi of Liverpool.
In France, Belgium will aim to match or even better their previous achievements – the runners-up in Euro 1980.
The only blow to Belgium is the absence of the injured Vincent Kompany, who is the backbone of the defence. The Manchester City captain will miss the tournament due to a thigh injury.
Sweden are a force that no teams can afford to neglect. Led by their all-time leading scorer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedes have the quality to upset either Italy or Belgium to barge into the last 16.
Four years ago, Sweden led in both matches against co-host Ukraine and England respectively. Despite failing to progress from the group, a brilliant and iconic acrobatic goal from Ibrahimovic set up a 2-0 victory over France.
In probably his last big tournament in career, Ibrahimovic is determined to deliver his best this summer. His performance can decide how far Sweden will go.
Also, Ireland won’t surrender without a fight. The Boys in Green qualified for their first tournament in 1988, but did not return to the European finals until 2012, when they lost three matches in a tough group.
However, in the most competitive soccer tournament in the world, the underdogs are not always there to make up the numbers.