Euro 2020(1): Group B – Denmark, Finland, Russia, Belgium
Of all the curiosities of this most unusual of tournaments, perhaps the biggest of all is the fact that there are so many host nations in this summer’s Euro 2020. Eleven cities in eleven countries are hosting matches, and this gives home advantage for some teams on a scale never before seen in a major international tournament. Each of the six groups has at least one host city, and three of them – Groups B, D and F – have two. In Group B, Copenhagen will be hosting all three of Denmark’s matches, while St Petersburg will be hosting two of Russia’s, and as if that doesn’t complicate matters enough, one of the other two teams in the group just happens to be FIFA’s number one ranked team and one of the favourites to win the competition overall, Belgium.
Denmark‘s recent form has been good. They drew 1-1 in Innsbruck against Germany at the end of last week, took four points from six against England in the Nations League (including a win at Wembley), and also recently beat Austria 4-0 away in a World Cup qualifier. They won five and drew one of their eight matches in 2020, and are unbeaten this year. The potential issue for them, however, comes with the two matches they lost throughout this period, both of which were against Belgium. With home advantage in all three of their matches, they will be hoping for better than the 4-2 and 2-0 defeats they suffered against Belgium last year.
The spine that runs through this team is solid if unspectacular, with Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Delaney and Tottenham Hotspur’s Pierre-Emile Højbjerg forming a base in midfield and Christian Eriksen just in front of them, as the playmaker. Some of us will already recall how devastating Eriksen can be on a good day from his one man demolition of the Republic of Ireland in their World Cup play-off match in Dublin in November 2017. If Eriksen can get anywhere near that level, Denmark should have enough about them to secure a place in the econd round of the competition this summer. Defensively, they’re certainly capable. With a fairly settled back four and Leicester City’s goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel in goal, they’ve only conceded one goal from their four matches in 2021, although this should be qualified by adding that two of these games were against extremely modest opposition, in the form of Israel and Moldova.
Three years ago on home soil in the World Cup, Russia defied some fairly apocalyptic pre-tournament predictions, scoring eight goals in their first two group matches and knocking Spain out in the second round before losing to eventual finalists Croatia in the quarter-finals on penalty kicks. This, however, is not the same Russia team as three years ago, and they enter this tournament as one of the teams in the worst form of all. Defensive restructuring has not gone according to plan, and results since the start of this season have included losing at home to Sweden and squandering an opportunity of promotion in the Nations League, including a stinging 5-0 loss to Serbia. Relations between manager Stanislav Cherchesov and the fans aren’t great, and even the team’s most talismanic player, Artem Dzyuba, divides opinion on account of a contentious transfer from Spartak Moscow to Zenit Saint Petersburg in 2015.
If there is a player that is capable of unlocking opposition defences within the Russian team, it’s Monaco’s Aleksandr Golovin. Attacking midfielder Golovin missed the first half of last season through injury, but his return coincided with a spectacular second half of the Ligue Un season during which they dropped points in just five matches, lifted themselves to third place in the league table, and reached the final of the Coupe de France. So there is talent within this team, but whether there’s enough to get results from matches against Denmark and/or Belgium is a different matter.
They’re FIFA’s number one ranked team in the world. They were one of only two teams to qualify for this (well, last) summer’s finals with a 100% record, averaging four goals a game as they did so, from a group that contained fellow qualifiers (through the play-offs) Russia and Scotland. Their team is almost overloaded with some of the most famous and most clearly talented players on the planet. There is little doubt that Belgium are one of the favourites to win this tournament. And Belgium need a trophy. They were knocked out of the last World Cup finals in the semi-finals, and in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
For a country the size of Belgium to have produced this number of great footballers in one team is one of the great football achievements in international football this century, but with this team getting no younger, they’re at risk of copying their rival Dutch team of the 1970s and having nothing to show for it. And it isn’t as though this team isn’t completely without issue. Captain Eden Hazard hasn’t even been getting a game for Real Madrid. Vice-captain Kevin De Bruyne’s likelihood of playing in the finals hangs in the balance following acute nose bone fracture and left orbital fracture that he suffered during the Champions League final. He certainly misses their first match against Russia because of surgery. The three-man defence has a combined age of 101 and isn’t getting any quicker. Axel Witzel is And their task isn’t made much easier by the fact that they have to play both Denmark and Russia away from home.
That said, they have Romelu Lukaku, Thomas Meunier, and Thorgan Hazard. Those three defenders may be getting on, but they’re still Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen, while Thibaut Courtois still keeps goal. And then there’s their recent results. They’re unbeaten since losing to England in October last year, and prior to that they’d only lost twice in four years. The only question that now remains about them is whether this is their peak, or whether that came three years ago, at the World Cup finals in France.
Finland came up on the rails and surprised everybody, but they’re in the finals of a major international tournament for the first time on merit. With Italy running away at the top, their group became a shootout between them and Greece, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Armenia, with Liecenstein as ballast. One of the key moments in the direction of the group came with five minutes to play in Greece’s home game against Liechenstein, when Dennis Salanovic levelled for the visitors. Greece also dropped crucial points in Armenia. Finland finished four points clear of Greece in the end, despite Greece beating them in the final round of group matches.
Teemu Pukki remains their best known player in England, of course. He stayed with them following relegation at the end of the season before last, and scored 26 goals as they got promoted straight back last time around. Pukki has now scored 66 goals in three seasons for Norwich, and one of those three saw them finish bottom of the table, recording just five league wins. And Finland are, if nothing else, a widely-scattered bunch. Their 26 man squad contains players from 15 different leagues, from Cyprus to Canada, from Minnesota to Norfolk. Their first choice goalkeeper plays for Bayer Leverkusen. Their third choice plays for Bristol Rovers. Plenty of people will tell them to just “enjoy the experience”, but plenty of people said that to Iceland five years ago, and look what happened there.