By Matt Styles
This summer we at Palatinate Sport will be releasing regular content relating to Euro 2020. Here we preview Group B, which consists of Belgium, Denmark, Russia, and debutants Finland. For a more detailed discussion, listen to James Reid, Harvey Stevens, George Simms, and Jamie Sim on the podcast (below).
The Red Devils will be looking to avenge their semi-final defeat in the 2018 World Cup though, with the majority of their ‘golden generation’ creeping towards the retirement home, they look slightly less fearful these days and will have to act fast if they are to win a major tournament.
Despite conceding three goals in Euros qualifying, the central cause for concern is Belgium’s defensive vulnerabilities. Whilst Jason Denayer has at times been a behemoth for Lyon in recent seasons, he isn’t quite able to fill the Vincent Kompany-sized hole that was left two years ago.
Belgium will rely on veterans Jan Vertonghen (34), Thomas Vermaelen (35), and Toby Alderweireld (32) to keep things solid at the back but are ultimately susceptible given their age. This is particularly concerning given how attacking Martinez likes his wing-backs, with the likes of Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Meunier, and Timothy Castagne possibly leaving a withering rearguard exposed in transitions.
However, productivity at the other end shouldn’t be a concern. Despite leaving Porto with a black eye on Saturday, star man Kevin De Bruyne will be fired up after City’s Champions League final disappointment and ready to provide service to the likes of Eden Hazard, Napoli goal machine Dries Mertens, and Romelu Lukaku, whose 24 goals and 11 assists steered Inter to an historic Scudetto.
Overall, there is plenty of creativity in the ranks which, combined with the familiarity of the group, means that Belgium should comfortably top the table and progress to the knockout rounds. Going the distance may prove a stretch too far for this ageing and mercurial squad, but there is still an embarrassment of riches at Roberto Martinez’s disposal which can inflict some serious damage on whoever they face up against.
Key Man: Kevin De Bruyne
An honourable mention to Romelu Lukaku, but De Bruyne’s invention is the crucial factor in Belgium’s success. The Manchester City talisman, widely lauded as the best playmaker in world football behind Lionel Messi, has been magical in recent seasons under Pep Guardiola and will look to unlock defences at will.
One to Watch: Youri Tielemans
With Axel Witsel facing serious injury concerns and Marouane Fellaini calling time on his international career in 2019, this could be the Leicester City midfielder’s time to shine. At 24, Tielemans recently proved that he can deliver under pressure when firing home a majestic long-range strike against Chelsea in the FA Cup final, and beside his shooting ability he is a cultured passer of the ball who will work well with a whole host of creative talent.
Prediction: Quarter-finals (1st in Group)
Famous, or perhaps infamous winners of this competition in 1992, the Danes come into Euro 2020 as a real underdog. Coached by the tactically agile Kasper Hjumand, ‘De rød-hvide’ arrive to the party having lost just twice since July 2018, when Croatia dumped them out of the World Cup on penalties in the round of 16.
Denmark currently sit tenth in the FIFA world rankings, which isn’t particularly surprising given the amount of quality in every department. This is especially true of their core, with Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Delaney and Spurs’ Pierre-Emile Højbjerg providing a solid platform for the likes of Christian Eriksen, Yussuf Poulsen, and Martin Braithwaite to express themselves, along with the lesser-known but equally exciting Robert Skov and Andreas Skov Olsen.
Behind them is a formidable defence who have conceded none in their opening three World Cup qualifying games. Ahead of Kasper Schmeichel a centre-back partnership of the evergreen captain Simon Kjaer, who has shone for AC Milan this season, alongside one of Andreas Christensen, Joachim Andersen, and Yannick Vestergaard is a mouthwatering prospect for Danish fans.
Scoring goals will be the obvious concern with Kasper Dolberg having not lived up to his potential and Braithwaite and Poulsen never really convincing, not just in terms of their goalscoring record but also knowing their best position. However, a common theme of this group is attacking full-backs, and Valencia’s Swiss army knife Daniel Wass and Atalanta’s marauding Joakim Mæhle should provide help down the flanks and look to get the Danes firing on all cylinders.
Key Player: Christian Eriksen
The former Spurs playmaker has been revitalised with title-winning Inter this season, chipping in with three league goals. The attacking midfielder will be grateful for the year’s delay to the tournament and will aim to silence his critics by running the Danish midfield.
One to Watch: Jonas Wind
The antidote to any goal-scoring difficulties may lie with prolific Copenhagen forward Jonas Wind. He has bagged 11 goals in 18 appearances in the Superligaen this season, and at just 22 this could be a real breakthrough tournament.
Prediction: Round of 16 (2nd in Group)
Russia turned many a head in 2018 when they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup, beating Spain in a thrilling penalty shoot-out. However, the general sense of surprise is indicative of the lack of familiar stars in their squad and the low bar that is automatically set for them.
One look at their roster and it doesn’t fill many with confidence, with the enduring selection of 37-year-old Yuri Zhirkov encompassing a perennial question of age and dynamism in their highly insular ranks. Generally ‘Наши парни’ (Our Guys) are regarded as having a monolithic and inward-looking approach to major tournaments, with Monaco’s Aleksandr Golovin and Atalanta’s Aleksei Miranchuk the only exciting bright sparks to play outside of Russia.
However, whilst there are serious doubts over the substance and technical brilliance of this side beyond long balls to captain Artem Dzyuba, they are fiercely determined and have historically punched above their weight at major tournaments. Though results in the build-up to Euro 2020 have been a mixed bag, do not be surprised to see Russia mount another shock run.
Key Player: Artem Dzyuba
For fans of Russian football, this man needs no introduction. With 29 goals in 50 international appearances the prolific Zenit forward, who stands at 6’6”, is Stanislav Cherchesov’s focal point and will be intent on bullying backlines and simply sticking the ball in the back of the net.
One to Watch: Mario Fernandes
The CSKA right-back, who switched allegiances from Brazil in 2017, has been a mainstay in domestic Russian football for nearly a decade. Partial to a marauding run down the wing, Fernandes has proven a reliable source of goals and should link play up well.
Prediction: Group Stage (3rd place)
Finland will be written off by many, including their own fans, as they make their maiden voyage in an international tournament. This is justified given their total lack of experience on this stage and the general obscurity of their squad; besides Norwich powerhouse Teemu Pukki, Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky and Rangers midfielder Glenn Kamara there are no household names in their 26-man roster.
Led by the detail-oriented former school teacher Markku Kanerva, the Finns also go into the tournament on the back of some pretty miserable form, having failed to win in their last five international games.
However, like all underdogs, they will be hoping to cause a major upset (see Iceland in 2016). The sense of camaraderie and mutual respect in the camp is said to translate to a sense of ease when playing together and, with the pressure off, Huuhkajat may play with the type of fearlessness that can eke out wins against either Scandinavian rivals Denmark or the neighbouring Russia.
Key Player: Lukas Hradecky
Though Teemu Pukki be heavily relied on for goals, at the other end the zany Bayer Leverkusen shot-stopper will be crucial in fending off what will no doubt be regular onslaughts from opposing attacks. His charisma and experience at commanding a back line at the top level will be invaluable to what looks to be a fairly ragtag assortment of centre-backs.
One to Watch: Marcus Forss
The Brentford man was largely forced to play second fiddle to Ivan Toney last season but is invariably a bright spark and capable of moments of magic. In addition to scoring against France on his international debut in November, more recently he bagged Brentford’s winning goal in the play-off semi-final. A good tournament for the 21-year-old could land him a more regular spot in the Bees’ inaugural Premier League campaign next year.
Prediction: Group Stage (4th place)
At first glance, Group B is ostensibly one of the less competitive groups and home to arguably the highest poverty of footballing quality, but Russia and Finland will be out to turn heads and upset conventional wisdom. Belgium and Denmark would be foolish to rest on their laurels and they could find themselves dropping points, but realistically they should have more than enough to slice through what will undoubtedly be some stoic resistance and qualify with relative ease. Finland will give it a good go, but Russia’s collective experience in international tournaments should guide them to third place and quash any sort of ‘Pukki party’.
Image: Эдгар Брещанов via Creative Commons