Romelu Lukaku and Co. have to pass in St. Petersburg
Around a year and a half ago, the Belgian national team looked like the leading power in European football. The “Red Devils” were swept through the European Championship qualification in a crisp white vest, always clinging to the top of the FIFA world rankings. But before the tournament starts on Saturday (9 p.m.) in St. Petersburg against Russia, injuries in particular raise doubts that this time it will be enough for the first title.
In the opening game of Group B, in which Denmark and Finland were drawn, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel and captain Eden Hazard are in danger of being eliminated. The trio could also be described as the heart of the team. Manchester City star De Bruyne was operated on in the face after a crash with Antonio Rüdiger in the Champions League final. Witsel is in the squad, although he did not play for months because of an Achilles tendon and did not train with the ball again until the end of May. Neither of them made the trip to St. Petersburg. Hazard is still behind in training after an injury-ridden season at Real Madrid, but should at least sit on the bench.
The balance in the squad is fragile, coach Roberto Martinez cannot replace his stars equally. Youri Tielemans from Leicester City should step into the breach against Russia in central midfield. If it doesn't work for Captain Hazard either, his brother Thorgan Hazard and Yannick Carrasco from Atletico Madrid would have the best cards for a place next to the central tip Romelu Lukaku. It is “about the collective and not about individuals,” said Carrasco. “We can do something big. We have played together in this line-up for many years.”
The winger's statement points to the team's great strength, but it could also be a weakness. Because Belgium is under pressure to succeed, with an average age of 28.7 years, the 2018 World Cup third party has the oldest squad of all EM participants. At the World Championships in Russia, the “Diables Rouges” only failed in the semifinals against what would become champion France. In previous major events, the De Bruyne generation ended up in the quarter-finals.
The bottom line is that until now there has been a lot of breadless art. With 40 goals and only three goals against, the team managed ten perfect wins in ten qualifying games and was the first country to qualify for the tournament. But that can't make the kicker who are hungry for success happy. “I'm proud of first place in the world rankings. But I'd rather be world champion and 20th in this ranking,” said Jan Vertonghen.
At 34 years of age, the defender is one of the most experienced players in the line-up alongside Thomas Vermaelen (35), Dries Mertens (34), Toby Alderweireld (32) and Witsel (32). “I am convinced that we can beat any nation at the European Championship,” said the Benfica Lisbon central defender. He named France as a top favorite. “But England and Italy are only one step down and we are there too.” Belgium is currently undefeated for nine games in a row.
The duel with Russia has already taken place twice in the qualifying for the pan-European tournament – each with the same outcome: the Russians trained by Stanislav Cherchessov had no chance. A 3-1 win in Brussels was followed by a 4-1 away win in St. Petersburg in November 2019. A maximum of 30,500 fans are allowed into the stadium there on Saturday – the third highest maximum contingent of all EURO host cities.
The former FC Tirol keeper Tschertschessow still doubts that there will be such a thing as a real home advantage. “On the one hand it's an advantage, of course, but on the other hand it's just up to us and how we prepare,” said the 57-year-old. At the 2018 World Cup in their own country, the “Sbornaja” only failed in the quarter-finals on penalties against the later runner-up world champion Croatia. In the European Championship qualification, the Belgium games remained the only two defeats, which resulted in second place.
“Yes, they have a strong team, but we will try everything to look good against them,” said Anton Shunin, who succeeded Igor Akinfejew as goalkeeper. It would not be surprising if Cherchessov chose a defensive tactic with five defenders and a back four to frustrate the guests. In this way Russia bricked out a 1-1 draw against Spain in the round of 16 at the home World Cup three years ago. That ultimately led to a win on penalties.