Euro 2020, Group B preview: Belgium’s time to shine

Belgium, the world's top-ranked men’s football team, is primed to go the distance at the European Championships (Euro 2020) this year. The nation is grouped alongside Demark, Russia and Finland in Group B.

Belgium’s is a squad brimming with quality, with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne (right), Romelu Lukaku (second from right) and Eden Hazard (centre) leading the way.   -  Getty Images

Belgium is the world’s top-ranked men’s team and should fancy its chances of topping Group B, which also has Denmark, Russia and Finland. Roberto Martinez’s side has been in fine form of late, with five wins and a draw across six FIFA World Cup qualifying and UEFA Nations League matches, including an emphatic 8-0 demolition of Belarus in March, since a 2-1 defeat to England in October 2020.

Current form aside, Belgium’s is a squad brimming with quality, with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard leading the way. The side comes into the tournament on the back of an impressive showing at the 2018 World Cup in Russia where it finished third, putting behind years of underachievement.

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The Golden Generation is still pretty much intact, raising hopes of a first major trophy this summer, a feat Belgium came agonisingly close to achieving at the 1980 Euros, before finishing runner-up to West Germany.

De Bruyne has been in outstanding form this season, racking up 10 goals and 18 assists in Manchester City’s splendid side of 2020-21 that won the Premier League and EFL Cup and reached the final of the Champions League. But an acute fracture of the nose in the Champions League final against Chelsea has left him in a race against time to be fit for the opener against Russia on June 12. Lukaku is possibly at the peak of his prowess, scoring 24 times in Inter Milan’s first Serie A title in more than a decade. Hazard, irrepressible at the last World Cup, has had two injury-ravaged seasons at Real Madrid, but remains the most talented player in the squad.

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Other notable names include Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans, Napoli’s Dries Mertens, Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco and the Borussia Dortmund duo of Thorgan Hazard and Axel Witsel. There is some excitement about 18-year-old winger Jeremy Doku, impressive in Rennes’ sixth-place finish in the French Ligue 1.

At the back, Thibaut Courtois’ is a solid presence in goal, but the defence comprising the ageing trio of Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen might come under pressure.

Belgium can expect a stiff fight from Denmark. The Scandinavian country, a fairy-tale European champion in 1992, did not qualify for the 2016 edition but progressed to the knockouts of the 2018 World Cup and stretched eventual finalist Croatia to a penalty shootut. It has displayed good form leading into Euro 2020, losing just two of its last 27 matches. Interestingly both those losses were against Belgium, in the Nations League.

Squad: Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Matz Sels; Defenders: Toby Alderweireld, Dedryck Boyata, Timothy Castagne, Thomas Meunier, Jason Denayer, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen; Midfielders: Yannick Carrasco, Nacer Chadli, Thorgan Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Leander Dendoncker, Eden Hazard, Dennis Praet, Youri Tielemans, Hans Vanaken, Axel Witsel; \Forwards: Jeremy Doku, Dries Mertens, Leandro Trossard, Michy Batshuayi, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku.

Manager: Roberto Martinez

FIFA ranking: 1

Last 3 Euros: 2008 Did not qualify, 2012 Did not qualify, 2016 Quarterfinals.

Last 5 matches: Won 3, drew 2, lost 0; goals for 17, goals against 5

Denmark

Under new manager Kasper Hjulmand, who took charge last July, Denmark has gone back to playing a high-energy attacking game. Aage Hareide, who was at the helm from 2016 to 2020, had moved the Danish players away from the famed Dutch principles they were schooled in for more than a decade. Hjulmand’s task will be to reinstate these methods, and the signs leading into Euro 2020 have been promising, with Denmark scoring 14 goals without answer in three World Cup qualifying games in March. Christian Eriksen’s role will be central. The 29-year-old is the team’s heartbeat and Denmark will be delighted with his performances in Inter Milan’s 2020-21 Serie A title triumph. After initially struggling to hold down a place, Eriksen was integral to head coach Antonio Conte’s plans and featured heavily since the start of the year.

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Backing him up will be Tottenham Hotspur’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Dortmund’s Thomas Delaney, RB Leipzig’s Yussuf Poulsen, Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel and Barcelona’s Martin Braithwaite.

Simon Kjaer’s will be a towering presence in the defence. Capped over 100 times by Denmark, Kjaer was stellar in AC Milan’s fine season, helping the club secure Champions League qualification for the first time since 2013-14.

Squad: Goalkeepers: Kasper Schmeichel, Jonas Lossl, Frederik Ronnow; Defenders: Simon Kjaer, Andreas Christensen, Jannik Vestergaard, Joachim Andersen, Mathias Jorgensen, Jens Stryger Larsen, Joakim Maehle, Nicolai Boilesen; Midfielders: Christian Eriksen, Thomas Delaney, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Mathias Jensen, Christian Norgaard, Anders Christiansen, Robert Skov, Daniel Wass; Forwards: Kasper Dolberg, Jonas Wind, Andreas Cornelius, Martin Braithwaite, , Mikkel Damsgaard, Yussuf Poulsen, Andreas Skov Olsen.

Manager: Kasper Hjulmand

Russia

Russia, meanwhile, will look to grab one of four available spots for the best third-place finishers and progress to the round of 16. The assessment might seem harsh for a team that reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup and notched up a famous win over Spain en route, but Russia’s performances in the recent past have been ordinary. In its last 11 competitive matches, it has won just four.

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Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad is also an ageing one, still heavily dependent on the likes of 37-year-old wingback Yuri Zhirkov and 32-year-old striker Artem Dzyuba. Attacker Aleksandr Golovin, 24, remains the nation’s most-talented player, but he has failed to establish himself at French club Monaco. Aleksei Miranchuk, 25, has spent more time on the bench than on the pitch at Serie A club Atalanta.

If Russia has to progress, Aleksandr Golovin has to come good.   -  Getty Images

 

But if Russia has to progress, Golovin has to come good. Quick and two-footed, it will be his job to drive through opposition defences from his attacking-midfield position. He is also among a handful of Russian players who ply their trade outside their home country, exposing himself to a better quality of football. Russia playing its opening two group stage games at home in St Petersburg can give it an advantage, too.

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But much will depend on how Cherchesov will line his team up. Holding strong defensively against attacking opponents like Belgium and Denmark might be his best bet. At the 2018 World Cup, he became the first-ever Russian – since the collapse of the Soviet Union – to take his country into the knockout stages of a tournament. Dutchman Guus Hiddink achieved this feat at Euro 2008, finishing a worthy semifinalist. It will be a miracle if the present side can emulate the 2008 performance.

Squad: Goalkeepers: Yuri Dyupin, Matvei Safonov, Anton Shunin; Defenders: Georgi Dzhikiya, Igor Diveev, Vyacheslav Karavaev, Fedor Kudryashov, Andrei Semenov, Mario Fernandes; Midfielders: Dmitri Barinov, Rifat Zhemaletdinov, Maksim Mukhin, Aleksandr Golovin, Daniil Fomin, Roman Zobnin, Daler Kuzyayev, Andrei Mostovoy, Magomed Ozdoev, Denis Cheryshev, Yuri Zhirkov; Forwards: Artem Dzyuba, Anton Zabolotny, Aleksandr Sobolev, Aleksei Miranchuk, Denis Makarov, Alexei Ionov.

Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov

Finland

Finland, though, can well be the surprise package, as it makes its debut in a major tournament. In the Nations League last year, it beat Ireland and Bulgaria home and away and even secured a stunning victory over world champion France, albeit in a friendly match. Finland did lose twice to Wales, and a second-string side also tasted defeat against Poland, but these are unlikely to deter coach Markku Kanerva.

A number of his wards have done well across Europe this season, gaining valuable big-match experience. Bayer Leverkusen’s Lukas Hradecky was one of the Bundesliga’s best goalkeepers last season, while midfielder Glen Kamara fired Rangers to a first Scottish title in 10 years. Teemu Pukki, Finland’s best player with 30 goals from 90 internationals, helped Norwich City earn promotion to the Premier League for the second time in three years.

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Finland won’t be playing at home, but two of its three matches will be in nearby St Petersburg, on the eastern edge of the Gulf of Finland, a key seaway that contains some of the most important oil harbours. A few slick moves can make the world sit up and take notice.

Squad: Goalkeepers: Lukas Hradecky, Jesse Joronen, Anssi Jaakkola; Defenders: Paulus Arajuuri, Robert Ivanov, Thomas Lam, Daniel O’Shaughnessy, Jukka Raitala, Joona Toivio, Jere Uronen, Nicholas Hamalainen, Sauli Vaisanen; Midfielders: Nikolai Alho, Fredrik Jensen, Glen Kamara, Joni Kauko, Robin Lod, Rasmus Schuller, Pyry Soiri, Tim Sparv, Robert Taylor, Onni Valakari; Forwards: Lassi Lappalainen, Teemu Pukki, Joel Pohjanpalo, Marcus Forss.

Manager: Markku Kanerva

FIFA ranking: 54

Last 3 Euros: 2008, 2012, 2016 Did not qualify

Last 5 matches: Won 0, drew 2, lost 3, goals for 6, goals against 11

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