Belgium's Mertens admires Italy but plots their downfall

Belgium’s Dries Mertens is looking forward more than most to Friday’s European Championship quarterfinal against Italy where he has spent the last eight years of his club career.

Dries Mertens celebrates a goal for Napoli during the Italian Cup in June, 2020. - AP

Belgium’s Dries Mertens is looking forward more than most to Friday’s European Championship quarterfinal against Italy where he has spent the last eight years of his club career.

Mertens broke Diego Maradona’s goalscoring record at Napoli last season and has played with many of the Italians he will be up against in Munich.

"It is special to play against Italy because I've lived there for the last eight years and I know all their players," he told a news conference on Wednesday.

Mertens is a big admirer of Italy's national team, among the most impressive at Euro 2020 so far.

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"This generation can play football. They have won a long series of matches and conceded few goals. They have a good mix between youth and experience," he said.

"Many people did not expect them to play attacking football, but they have shown great trust in that approach. It's been nice to see them at work."

 

Italy will also be the favourite, asserted Mertens despite Belgium being top-ranked by FIFA.

Italy is on a 31-match unbeaten run, stretching back to a 1-0 defeat by Portugal in the Nations League in September 2018. The goal conceded to Austria in its 2-1 victory in Saturday's last-16 tie was the first in 12 matches.

Belgium, too, has big dreams for its "golden generation," still in search of a first major tournament trophy.

"It is not the last chance because I believe in the future of Belgian football, but I’m the first to say that we must seize this opportunity," Mertens said.

Team glory more important than Ballon d'Or award

Italy midfielder Jorginho said team glory is more important than any push to win a surprise Ballon d'Or award for the best player in world football after a team-mate said he deserved it.

Speaking after Italy reached the Euro 2020 quarter finals with a 2-1 victory over Austria on Saturday, forward Lorenzo Insigne highlighted the 29-year-old Jorginho's importance to the Azzurri, adamant he should be considered for the accolade.

But ahead of Italy's last-eight clash with Belgium in Munich on Friday, Jorginho, who was at the heart of the Chelsea team that won the Champions League last month, insisted no such personal focus comes into his mind.

"I don't think about it," he said at Italy's training base on Wednesday, when asked about the Ballon d'Or. "Everything that is happening is the consequence of hard work.

"My priority is the group and celebrating together with my team mates and friends. This is more beautiful than celebrating alone," he added at a news conference.

"We are aware there isn't room for mistakes. It would be wrong to think we have already achieved something important," he said.

"We need to work more and more. We are on the right path, we need to grit our teeth and we are doing it. We must respect the first team in the ranking, but everybody has weak points."

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