Sunday 18 February 2018

Belgium's bizarre use of Spurs duo gives Ireland hope

Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen battles with Southampton striker Shane Long. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen battles with Southampton striker Shane Long. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

Jan Vertonghen is well used to a battle, as anyone who watched Tottenham Hotspur's costly 2-2 draw with Chelsea will know, but even he admits most international sides are no longer used to the type of physical football Ireland play. In fact, the Belgian defender goes even further.

"I wish they were not in our group!"

That, however, does not mean his side will be backing down when they meet Ireland in what could be a deciding Euro 2016 group game on June 18, in Bordeaux. There's a warning on the other side of that wish.

"They are, physically, one of the stronger teams. But we have some physical strength too, so we will compete with them."

Vertonghen has competed against Shane Long and Jon Walters in the Premier League, so is familiar with the distinctive threat that Martin O'Neill's side offer.

"I've had some very hard games against both of them, both very strong and good players," Vertonghen says. "It's another tough side. We have to be on top of our game every single time."

There is twist to that, though, that could yet turn things Ireland's way.

Vertonghen is in relaxed mood at Spurs' state-of-the-art training complex, with the sophistication of their base only deepening the feeling that the club is really going somewhere under Mauricio Pochettino, who has just signed a new contract. Their developing team is founded on the cast-iron central defensive partnership of Vertonghen and his compatriot Toby Alderweireld, and the 29-year-old enthuses about why they work so well.

"We understand each other, I think we are the same education football-wise, in Antwerp, in Ajax, in the international team, then here in England. We have the same way of defending and that's why we know we can help each other out."

This is the thing, though, and where it could get interesting for O'Neill. With captain Vincent Kompany now confirmed out of Euro 2016 through injury, and Thomas Vermaelen having again struggled for fitness with Barcelona, Belgian manager Marc Wilmots will be without his first-choice partnership. That should be the perfect opportunity to bring in the Spurs duo - and potentially even improve the team - but Vertonghen does not expect Wilmots to do that. He and Alderweireld will almost certainly continue in their full-back roles.

"I don't expect him to try us together, no. He knows he can count on us, whenever there are more injuries. I think Toby and I have proven ourselves as full-backs and that's where the team needs us most. I think we'll start the campaign as full-backs and you never know where you're going to end up but hopefully we stay full-backs, because otherwise that will mean more injuries."

For many critics of Wilmots, it is decisions like this that emphasise how he is not getting the best out of an outstanding group of Belgian players, and that could yet affect their chances at Euro 2016.

It should give O'Neill and his strikers plenty of cause for thought. To put it in stark terms, rather than coming up against what is statistically the best central defensive partnership in the Premier League in Vertonghen and Alderweireld, Long and Walters will instead face the more untried duo of an erratic Vermaelen and Galatasaray's Jason Denayer.

It beggars almost as much belief as the fact that, in a squad with so much attacking talent, Marouane Fellaini is the top scorer with just 15 international goals in 64 games. That sums up how this Belgian team have arguably under-performed under Wilmots. Vertonghen, however, retains belief that they can go and lift the trophy.

"We've got a squad who can win it. Obviously you know, injuries. . . Kompany's out now, he's very, very important for us on and off the pitch. He had a big impact but we still have a team that can challenge every other team, so you have to get a bit lucky but we go for as high as possible a place."

First, they have to get out of the group, and that is something Vertonghen is not taking for granted.

"It's tough, very tough," he says. "Italy, first game, you know, you have to be straight into the tournament. They are a tournament team, like Germany. We beat them a couple of months ago, quite easily but it will be a very different game and Ireland, tough, Sweden, tough."

Difficult as they may be, there are still unlikely to be any games as intensely competitive as that 2-2 with Chelsea that cost Spurs the title. Vertonghen admits disappointment at not pushing Leicester City all the way, but his eyes do still spark a bit at the memory of that battle at Stamford Bridge.

"It was a very nice to play in, it had everything," he smiles. "Emotion, fouls, cards and - most of the time - respect for each other. Chelsea had lots of games like this, as a top team. We had some games like this, but it was the tension between the two clubs. We were fighting for our last chance. They knew. They didn't have good season, they want to make something of it, they want to give supporters something, it was just tension but I still think there's still lots of respect between us. Just, it exploded a little!"

This is the attitude Ireland are up against. It just might not be in the position that gets the best out of it.

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