- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

LYON, France (AP) - Belgium has some work to do to shore up a leaky defense if its “golden generation” is going to make it through the group stage at the European Championship.

The team, one of the pre-tournament favorites, was undone Monday by a well-drilled Italy side that kept Belgium’s array of attacking players at bay and countered effectively to claim its 2-0 victory.

Particularly worrying for Belgium was that its back line was easily exposed by Italy which had come into Euro 2016 with little apparent attacking firepower.

Coach Marc Wilmots has until Saturday to plug the holes before his team meets an Ireland side that dominated Sweden for large stretches in their 1-1 draw on Monday too.

Group E is arguably the toughest group in Euro 2016, so Belgium can’t afford to slip up much more.

“Now we have to win the other two matches and be a better team,” said goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. “Italy outclassed us in organization, and tactically they were the best team.”

Italy’s opening goal came as Belgium’s star players such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne appeared settled in their opponent’s half. But a long ball from Leonardo Bonucci to Emanuele Giaccherini was all that was needed to break the deadlock. Striker Graziano Pelle sealed the surprise victory on the break in injury time.

Belgium’s defensive problems shouldn’t come as a surprise. The “Red Devils” endured a spate of injuries in the run-up to Euro 2016, notably the loss of first choice center backs Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts.

Wilmots’ response was to shift Toby Alderweireld to center back with Thomas Vermaelen alongside. Vermaelen, who has been hampered by injuries for several years, did not play with Alderweireld through any of Belgium’s 10 qualifiers.

The rejig at the heart of the Belgian defense required a change elsewhere, and Wilmots opted to give Laurent Ciman his 12th cap at the age of 30.

The back four’s lack of familiarity was evident, most notably in a regular failure to coordinate the off-side trap which caused several heated exchanges. Left back Jan Vertonghen shouted in frustration after he was caught out of position and had to rush back to block Antonio Candreva’s shot.

“It’s a disappointing result for us,” Vertonghen said. “We had expected more.”

The contrast with Italy’s back three of Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini could not have been starker. The Juventus trio reached a combined 200 appearances for Italy with another display of control and confidence. That stronghold in defense allowed coach Antonio Conte to push his midfielders to help out in attack.

Wilmots knows there’s a problem that needs addressing.

“If you are able to play an assist from 40 yards and if you have three center backs there, typically there shouldn’t be any danger,” Wilmots said. “So there’s been a breakdown in communication which cannot happen at the top level . We are putting together a new defense, and that’s why it is important to know one another inside out.”

Wilmots said. “If we are able to win our remaining two matches we will make the main objective, which is the knockout stage.”


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