For European teams, the lack of opportunities to actually win a trophy can muddy the results they do get. There’s only a trophy on offer every two years (when there isn’t a pandemic), and perhaps Spain at the beginning of the last decade altered our perception of what’s success and what isn’t.
Belgium are seen as a disappointment, given this generation of players they have produced that have had them ranked as the world’s best team by FIFA for some time (even if those rankings and three bucks will get you on the subway). Belgium made the semifinals of the last World Cup, the quarters of the last European championships, and the quarters of the World Cup before that. The list of countries that would gladly take that record is a long one. It’s better than England has managed. Miles better than Holland. Better than Italy. It’s actually better than Spain.
But no final, not to mention no trophy, gives a feel of failure. Especially when perusing any of the rosters Belgium has brought to these tournaments. And it’s no different this time around. Belgium has Serie A’s best striker in Romelu Lukaku. They have the Premier League’s best midfielder in Kevin De Bruyne, who looks like he’ll be all right after breaking his face in the Champions League final. They have one of the world’s best keepers in Thibaut Courtois. There are proven Premier League performers littered throughout the team like Youri Tielemans or Dennis Praet or Leandro Trossard. And then there’s the wildcard of Eden Hazard, who only a couple of years ago was on the cusp of winning the Ballon d’Or, but then went to Madrid and saw his body turn to mush. Belgium only needs a couple of good weeks from him instead of many months to really pop this summer.
Which makes their finishes in tournaments frustrating, even if on paper it’s a good run. The last Euros saw them somehow lose to Wales in the quarters, as they looked completely flustered by a team playing, y’know, defense. The difference in organization was stark, which cost then-coach Marc Wilmots his job in favor of Roberto Martínez. The 2014 World Cup saw them bow out to a pretty mediocre Argentina team. Last time we saw them in a tournament, they lost a coin-flip of a match to eventual champions France, and could have easily taken it. They don’t have many steps left to take.
What Martínez will have to navigate, or prove to his doubters he knows how, is that the defense for Belgium are the Wilfred Brimley All-Stars. Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, and Thomas Vermaelen are a combined 398 years old or thereabouts, and Martínez’s habits of installing attacking midfielders as wingbacks in their customary 3-4-3 formation can lead them to be on the exposed side.
Still, going forward this team should be tasty as fuck. The other Hazard, Thorgan, can be installed as one of those wingbacks. Or Yannick Carrasco, or Thomas Meunier, all of whom can cause havoc on the wings. If the elder Hazard can put down the fork long enough to combine with Lukaku and dependable Dries Mertens, there should be goals galore.
Belgium’s draw should aid as well. This group isn’t quite a walkover, but it’s close enough to be conceivable. Should they win the group, their round of 16 game will come against one of the third-placed teams, and a quarter could see Italy, or the Dutch, or some upstart, all of whom Belgium would be favored over.
One quirk of this edition of the Euros is that even though Belgium are the top-seeded team in this group, they’ll essentially be playing two away matches in the group stages, in Denmark and in Russia. That shouldn’t be too much of an obstacle, but makes things harder than they should be.
From there, it really is whether Lukaku can maintain his season-long dominance at the top level, or if De Bruyne can pick one more pass than he has in these tourneys, or whether they can avoid a team that contains a ton of speed out wide to stretch that aged backline. It’s been a good decade, but this Belgium team was pointed toward better than good. This is probably their last shot.
Denmark brings in a pretty strong squad... until you get to the front. There is a more than solid defense here, anchored by Milan’s Simon Kjær and keeper Kasper Schmeichel. The midfield is the real strength with Christian Eriksen being supported by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Dortmund’s Thomas Delaney. But there is no punch up front. It’s either the blank stare of Youssuf Poulson, who only managed five goals with the very attack-minded Leipzig this season, or youngsters like Andreas Skov Olsen or Jonas Wind who have yet to taste this level. You can almost always count on the Danes to make it out of the group, and then bow out in a round of 16 game no one will remember five minutes after it’s over. They’ll be stubborn outs for anyone they face, but unless Eriksen gets to line up a plethora of freekicks, their lack of finish will see a definite ceiling to what they can achieve.
Russia is three days older than water, though they’ll get to play two games at home which could eke them into a third spot good enough to get to the second round. This is Finland’s first major tournament, and proud we are of all them.
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Euro 2021 kicks off Friday, June 11