IAlmost three years ago Roberto Martínez, with a positive analysis as always but without hiding his disappointment, sat in the media tent outside the Gazprom Arena and lamented the thin margins that had eluded his Belgian team. “We couldn’t find that bit of magic in front of goal, that bit of luck,” he said. But I am very proud of the players. If you are going to lose, you lose by giving everything you have. “
Belgium hadn’t been good enough in their World Cup semi-final against France. There was no shame in it, but it did mean that the vaunted golden generation was a significant step closer to becoming the subject of a thousand “almost man” essays a few years later. Now the old guard among them have what feels like a last tilt in a major tournament and, given the location of their first Euro 2020 match, an early opportunity to take down any ghosts left behind after their departure from Russia. .
They have returned to St. Petersburg, where everything went wrong back then, and Martinez believes his players will absorb any additional pressure to fix things. “We have a group that has even more experience and you grow with the expectation,” he said, this time speaking in disembodied voices from a room inside the stadium. “I don’t think this team is going to suffer from the expectation. I think this is a team that needs to be really good to beat the opposition and that’s the only approach we have.
In truth, Belgium may not need a spectacular performance on Saturday to fire a stubborn but low-quality team from Russia, which they defeated twice convincingly in qualifying. The presence of some 32,000 home fans in a half-full stadium could be disorienting in the current climate – “That’s an element we have to overcome,” Martinez said – but Belgium’s biggest hurdle may be a build-up that, even if they are blessed with better depth than most, it has hardly been simple.
It is a particular frustration that Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel have stayed at the training ground in Tubize, just outside Brussels. The game has come too early for De Bruyne, who underwent surgery last weekend for a fractured eye socket suffered in the Champions League final, and Martinez knows that any Witsel involvement over the next month will be a disservice. advantage given the midfielder tore his Achilles tendon in January.
It’s not a disaster that Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker should occupy midfield instead of Witsel, but Martinez could do it without losing a stretch of established players. De Bruyne can face Denmark again on Thursday, although, unlike Witsel, he has yet to train with the team. His place could be taken by Dries Mertens, who is in the mid-30s, a list that De Bruyne will join the day after Belgium’s likely knockout tie, for whom he has a special urgency this summer.
“This will be the tournament with the most pressure,” Jan Vertonghen said Thursday, in his fifth major international competition. “We are at our peak.” Thibaut Courtois, a vivacious 29-year-old, struck an equally upbeat note: “I don’t think we’re too old. I think it is a very good mix between youth and experience. We have everything to win and it is a great moment to write history in this tournament ”.
Five years ago, they were heavily backed to do that in France before Wales, and the Hal Robson-Kanu pirouette stunned them in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals. Perhaps it was too easy to play against them when possession was taken from them and when Martinez took. After that tournament, there were certainly doubts surrounding their ability to instill courage that could lead them to cross the finish line. But they were relatively cautious in beating England 2-0 last November, and they stood their ground instead of shining in a quiet friendly win against Croatia on Sunday. Tactically, many in the camp feel a significant progression.
“It is very difficult to play against us,” Vertonghen said. “That is the merit of our tactics: our flexibility. This can be both an offensive and a defensive system. “
If De Bruyne is stopped beyond the trip to Copenhagen, which may take first place in Group B, they can be thankful for the latter. It will be a pleasant surprise if Eden Hazard, who will be restricted to a substitute role against Russia, can play a sustained role in the tournament so that Belgium’s established creative forces are lost and much may depend on Romelu Lukaku’s ability to build on. one year. that has brought 38 goals to club and country.
Russia has had its own problems, with Zenit St Petersburg winger Alexander Mostovoy testing positive for Covid-19 and will no longer be part of Stanislav Cherchesov’s team. However, Mostovoy was a fringe player and the hosts can still turn to their 2018 talisman Artyom Dzyuba in attack.
“There are some nerves, but nice because this is an important tournament,” said Dzyuba. It may be Belgium’s crunchy legs that have the most to lose.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism