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Battle of blooms as Wales and Belgium collide

By AFP, London
12th-Jun-2015       
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Two national teams cresting historic waves collide in a pivotal 2016 European Championship qualifying match on Friday when Group B front-runners Wales and Belgium meet at the Cardiff City Stadium.
Belgium, 4-3 winners against France in a friendly last Sunday, rose to a highest ever position of second in the most recent FIFA ranking, while Wales slipped one place to 22nd from their own highest ever ranking of 21st.
The two teams are level on 11 points at the halfway stage of the qualifying campaign, with Belgium top on goal difference, and Wales's Aaron Ramsey believes that Friday's match is his side's most important in a decade.
"It's probably the biggest game we've played in for Wales with this group of players," said the Arsenal midfielder. "We are both top of the league at the moment and there's a lot on this game."
Belgium and Wales' squads are at similar stages of their development, with both configured around a nucleus of players who progressed through their respective countries' youth teams at roughly the same time.
The average age of the Wales team that took to the field for their last game, an impressive 3-0 win away to Israel in March, was 26.18, while the average age of Belgium's line-up against France was 25.63.
Both teams boast experienced Premier League defenders and rely on youthful, world-class talent in midfield and attack-Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard for Belgium, Gareth Bale and Ramsey for Wales.
They are nonetheless worlds apart in the current pantheon of international football, with Belgium among the favourites to win Euro 2016 and Wales seeking to qualify for a first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.
But Wales will draw encouragement from the fact their two most recent games against Belgium, both in Brussels, have ended in draws-last November's reverse fixture and a World Cup qualifier in October 2013.
"We don't fear them," added Ramsey. "If this group are all switched on together, we'll give anyone a game."
Goals were a problem for Belgium at last year's World Cup in Brazil, where they reached the quarter-finals, with all four of their victories coming by single-goal margins.
But they have shown a keener cutting edge in qualifying for Euro 2016, scoring 13 goals and conceding only one, while they led France 3-0 and 4-1 before a late rally by the hosts gave the scoreline a misleading sheen.
Coach Marc Wilmots has been strongly linked with the managerial vacancy at Schalke, but while the subject continues to obsess the Belgian sports media, he is relaxed ahead of the trip to south Wales.
"We don't absolutely have to win on Friday," he said. "A draw wouldn't be dramatic as it's the top two places in the group that are important. But we'll obviously give everything to win."
Belgium will be without suspended captain Vincent Kompany, whose place was taken by 19-year-old Celtic centre-back Nicolas Denayer against France.
De Bruyne (ankle) and Kevin Mirallas (illness) are both in line to return after missing the France game, but Marouane Fellaini, who scored twice in Saint-Denis, is a major doubt with a groin problem. Wales are also diminished in defence, with James Collins and Ben Davies sidelined, but their absences are partially offset by the returns from injury of James Chester, Paul Dummett and Adam Matthews.
"We know all the qualities of Wales," added Wilmots, whose side, like their hosts, are unbeaten.
"They'll play in a bloc on Friday and won't leave us much space to express ourselves. It's up to us to be patient if we want to impose our game."

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