What’s being billed by some as the last hurrah for Belgium’s “golden generation” begins with two of the team’s long-time stalwarts likely missing from its opening match of the European Championship.
De Bruyne, Hazard out
Injury and fitness concerns mean neither Kevin De Bruyne nor Eden Hazard is set to start against Russia on Saturday at Saint Petersburg Stadium, where the Belgians’ World Cup hopes in 2018 died in a loss to France.
It returns to the same venue three years later as the world’s top-ranked team — it has been in that position since October 2018 — but with doubts about the availability of its two star attacking midfielders.
De Bruyne is probably the least of coach Roberto Martinez’s concerns. , despite linking up with the squad a week late after fracturing his nose and eye socket during Manchester City’s loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final.
The playmaker required a minor operation and is likely to be ready to start in Belgium’s second game against Denmark in Copenhagen on June 17. , when he might be wearing a face mask.
Hazard’s health is slightly less clear-cut, with the winger in far-from-perfect shape after an injury-disrupted season with Real Madrid and only being a substitute in Euro 2020 warm-up games.
Martinez said Hazard still needed to get “match intensity” so is likely to be on the bench again for the game against Russia, whose chances of an upset win suddenly have improved.
There’s still much to like about Belgium — the goals of striker Romelu Lukaku, the flourishing of midfielder Youri Tielemans, the foraging runs of wing-back Thomas Meunier, the consistency of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
The experience of more than 1,300 international appearances in the squad should also stand Belgium in good stead when it comes to pressure situations in a major tournament.
Yet is there a worry that the Belgians have a squad with one of the oldest average ages, at 28.7 years, at the end of a pandemic-congested season?
That Martinez is still relying on a bunch of 30-somethings in defence in Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen? That Axel Witsel, the main holding midfielder, is 32 and coming off a four-month absence with a torn Achilles tendon injury that could keep him out of the start of the tournament?
There is a widespread acceptance that this might be Belgium’s best chance of winning a European Championship or World Cup for the first time, at least for this current generation.
“Now is the time for us to win something. Maybe it’s now or never,” Belgium midfielder Leander Dendoncker said this week.
Counting against Martinez’s players somewhat is the fact they will have to travel for all of their games in the continent-wide competition.
“In terms of logistics, it’s probably the hardest we could’ve had,” Martinez said
Russia plays its first two Group-B games in St. Petersburg. It was on home soil that Russia reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2018, beating Spain along the way.
Not that playing at home did the Russians any good against Belgium in qualifying for Euro 2020, though. In their next-to-last group game, Russia conceded four goals at home for the first time in a competitive match in losing 4-1, also in St. Petersburg.
Playing in front of a potential 30,000 fans, among the biggest group-stage attendances at the tournament, can only spur on Russia in its fifth straight appearance at the European Championship.
A calf injury to experienced defender Fyodor Kudryashov sustained during the warm-up match against Bulgaria last week handed coach Stanislav Cherchesov an eve-of-tournament problem.
Mostovoy tests positive
On Friday, Russia winger Andrey Mostovoy became the first player to be cut from a team at the tournament after testing positive for the virus.
Cherchesov will be crossing his fingers no injury befalls Artem Dzyuba, who lost the captaincy last year because of a social-media scandal but remains a crucial member of the team as its main scorer.
Indeed, the 32-year-old striker needs one more goal to tie the record for Russia’s national team of 30, held by Alexander Kerzhakov, since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
From schoolboy to the national team, Dylan Levitt has come a long way since Wales went a long way at the last European Championship.
The Welsh reached the semifinals at Euro 2016 in their tournament debut, inspiring the likes of Levitt to work his way into the team for this year’s edition.
“Growing up watching that team, watching the games in the school hall. Every game, if I wasn’t in school I’d be watching it with my mates and my family,” the 20-year-old Wales winger said Wednesday.
“I don’t get bored with (hearing about) it really, I just want to remake it. Watching those games gave me more hunger to be in the next tournament.
Faith in youngsters
Dylan Levitt and his teammates, a group that includes Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, will open their Euro 2020 campaign on Saturday against Switzerland in faraway Azerbaijan.
In a squad with a strong youth contingent that includes midfielder Ethan Ampadu and right back Neco Williams, Bale has faith in his younger teammates.
Finland goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky didn’t sugar-coat things when summing up the difference between his team and Denmark at the European Championship.
“They have better players than us in every position,” Hradecky said bluntly ahead of Finland’s major tournament debut at Euro 2020.
Then the Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper touched on the one thing that could speak in his team’s favour going into Saturday’s Group B game in Copenhagen.
“But we have shown before that the sum of all the parts in our puzzle is greater than what people think,” he said.
Few would argue with either of Hradecky’s assessments.
While the closest thing Finland has to a star is Norwich striker Teemu Pukki, Denmark has an impressive spine that runs from goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel up through the centre-back pairing of Andreas Christensen and Simon Kjaer to Tottenham midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Inter Milan playmaker Christian Eriksen.
Finland, though, showed great cohesiveness in qualifying for its first major tournament under coach Markku Kanerva. That’s in part because the core of Kanerva’s team has been together since he led them to the Under-19 European Championship in 2009.
With a tight-knit bond, Finland could spring a few surprises at Euro 2020. And Denmark, of course, knows all about springing an upset at this tournament — having won the 1992 European Championship in one of the sport’s biggest shocks.
Now Denmark has to deal with the status of being a big favourite — at least for one game. With Russia and top-ranked Belgium also in the group, a win against Finland is probably a must if Denmark is to advance to the round of 16.
It will be the first time Denmark plays a major tournament game at home.
“It’s something completely unique and something I’ll probably never experience again,” Schmeichel said.
“I am really looking forward to it. But on the other hand, we must also keep a cool head and not get swept up in the emotions and the football fever that is happening in Denmark. We have to go in and do our job.” The statistics are also heavily in Denmark’s favor. Finland has only won one of the last 22 meetings between the Nordic sides, with Denmark winning 15 of those. The last time Finland won in Denmark was in 1949.
Finland warmed up for the tournament with losses to Sweden and Estonia, and there is still uncertainty around Pukki’s fitness after he struggled with an ankle problem toward the end of the season.
Denmark, meanwhile, has only lost two of its last 23 games overall — both to group opponent Belgium — and went through Euro 2020 qualifying undefeated.
So perhaps Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand can be forgiven for also getting swept up in the talk about winning the Euros once again. And he went even further back in history when looking for inspiration, seemingly channeling Danish author Hans Christian Andersen as well.
“We have to believe in it,” Hjulmand said.
“We are entering this tournament with a dream of a miracle. We are the country of fairy tales, so who knows.”