Wales, Belgium pin Euro semis hopes on top stars

Paris: Wales and Belgium face off on Friday in the European football Championship quarter-finals with all eyes on their biggest stars, Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, respectively. The Welsh, whose last foray into an international tournament's semi-finals took place in the 1958 Sweden FIFA World Cup, are about to face what is probably the most important match in their lives, reports Efe. Bale's excellent performance so far in the championship - seven goals in the qualifying round and three goals in France - is one of the main factors in Wales' favour, and makes him a leading contender for the Euro's Golden Shoe award. According to Bale, the turning point for the Welsh team came after a 1-0 win against Belgium, during the qualifying round in Cardiff. "From that night on, we got to another level," the Real Madrid striker said, who is now the leader of the Euro's only remaining British national team after the eliminations of England and Northern Ireland. Belgium, who advanced to the Mexico 1986 World Cup semi-finals, is a team slightly more used to competing in the final stages of international tournaments, and is currently one of the favourites for the title. The high expectations surrounding the Belgian "Red Devils" were dampened by the 2-0 defeat against Italy in the first match of the group stage in France. However, attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne's successful position switch from the wing to the central offence, plus the ensuing victories against Ireland, Sweden and Hungary with eight goals in favour and none against, have returned coach Marc Wilmots' team to the favourites list. The Belgians will not be able to count on suspended FC Barcelona defender Thomas Vermalen, who will most likely be replaced by Jordan Lukaku, starting forward Romelu Lukaku's younger brother. "Of course it is fun to be in the same team as my brother," said the defender. "He is only a year older than I and we are very close. It would be very special if we could both be in the starting lineup on Friday," the younger sibling added. But Belgium's great unknown remains 26-year-old Eden Hazard's physical state, after sustaining a slight injury in the left thigh in the per-quarterfinal match against Austria that could leave him out of Friday's clash against Wales at Lille's Pierre-Mauroy Stadium. Wilmots is confident that the Chelsea star will have recovered in time to play, although he warned he would not foolishly strain his best man. The duel's victor will know at the end of the match the name of their rival in semi-finals, as it is set to be the winner of Thursday's Poland versus Portugal.