Wales vs Belgium promises to be an exciting quarter-final clash at the Euro 2016 between two up and coming teams. Here's a look at some players who could turn the tide of the game's proceedings on Friday.
When it comes to Wales, it all starts with Bale. The world's most expensive footballer has clearly enjoyed himself hugely as the leader of a happy, united team. Perhaps the defining image of Bale's tournament came after Wales beat Northern Ireland 1-0 last Saturday. The carefree playtime with his toddler daughter on the Parc des Princes field showed a man seemingly free of stress. Bale has delivered. Three goals and one assist puts him top of the Golden Boot table before the quarterfinals, and his 12 goal attempts on target is also the most at Euro 2016. The last time Wales played Belgium, one year ago, Bale scored the one goal in Cardiff to win a Euro 2016 qualifier
The defender described by Bale this week as "priceless, he's the rock, the captain." The Wales star was asked because Williams was slowed ahead of facing Belgium by an injury to his left shoulder, caused by a collision with a teammate in the round of 16. It has been a tough tournament for the 31-year-old Swansea defender. His misplaced header teed up Jamie Vardy to level for England in a group game Wales led but lost 2-1. Still, Wales coach Chris Coleman won't rest Williams unless he has no choice. Among his 63 games for Wales, Williams has played all 14 in qualifying and here in France. Only Bale and defender Chris Gunter can match that record.
Of all the Arsenal players at Euro 2016, with eight different teams, Ramsey has been arguably the most effective. Only Eden Hazard of Belgium has more assists than Ramsey's two. While opponents must have a strategy for containing Bale, Ramsey provides an extra threat as the Wales No. 10. Their 33 career goals for Wales — 22 for Bale, 11 for Ramsey — is more than rest of the squad combined.
Known to the Wales camp as their Xavi Hernandez or Andrea Pirlo, Allen's neat passing knits the play together. Allen is at the heart of the national team after being on the fringes for much of the season at Liverpool. One of several past and present Swansea players in a squad which seems as close as a club team under coach Chris Coleman.
The most-capped player for Wales in the 23-man Euro 2016 squad. Gunter will make his 72nd appearance if, as expected, he lines up at right wing-back against Belgium. Still, it is a possible 73rd game in a semifinal next Wednesday that has become a family affair for Gunter. That match in Lyon is one day before Gunter is due to do best man duties at his brother's wedding in Cancun, Mexico. Gunter revealed this week that several family members were already flying to Mexico ahead of the quarterfinal.
"I think it will be the first best man's speech ever on Skype," Gunter said.
Belgium have been known as a team of star-studded players. They finally gelled together against Hungary in a 4-0 rout. Here are the 5 players from the Red Devils who could prove to be far too much to handle for Chris Coleman's Wales.
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.
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.
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."
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.
(With inputs from AP)