Hello and welcome coverage of the final game of the day between Belgium and Russia.
Sadly, all thoughts are with Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen, who collapsed on the pitch in the first half of their clash with Finland.
Eriksen received medical assistance on the pitch and was stretchered away. The match was subsquently suspended and we await further news on his condition.
The European Chmpionship is being billed by some as the last hurrah for Belgium’s “golden generation” begins with two of the team’s long-time stalwarts likely missing from its opening match.
Injury and fitness concerns mean neither Kevin De Bruyne nor Eden Hazard is set to start against Russia on Saturday at Saint Petersburg Stadium, where the Belgians’ World Cup hopes in 2018 died in a loss to France.
They return to the same venue three years later as the world’s top-ranked team _ they have been in that position since October 2018 _ but with doubts about the availability of their two star attacking midfielders, and maybe a bit more.
De Bruyne is probably the least of coach Roberto Martinez’s concerns, despite linking up with the squad a week late after fracturing his nose and eye socket during Manchester City’s loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final. The playmaker required a minor operation and has been following an individual training program, so he didn’t travel to St. Petersburg for the team’s opening game against Russia.
Martinez said he expects De Bruyne to be ready to play in Belgium’s second game, against Denmark in Copenhagen on June 17, when he might be wearing a face mask.
Hazard’s health is slightly less clear-cut, with the winger in far-from-perfect shape after an injury-disrupted season with Real Madrid and only being a substitute in Euro 2020 warmup games.
Martinez said Hazard still needed to get “match intensity” so is likely to be on the bench again for the game against Russia, whose chances of an upset win suddenly have improved.
There’s still much to like about Belgium: the goals of striker Romelu Lukaku, the flourishing of midfielder Youri Tielemans, the foraging runs of wing back Thomas Meunier, the consistency of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The experience of more than 1,300 international appearances in the squad should also stand Belgium in good stead when it comes to pressure situations in a major tournament.
Yet is there a worry that the Belgians have a squad with one of the oldest average ages, at 28.7 years, at the end of a pandemic-congested season? That Martinez is still relying on a bunch of 30-somethings in defense in Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen? That Axel Witsel, the main holding midfielder, is 32 and coming off a four-month absence with a torn Achilles tendon injury that has ruled him out of the start of the tournament?
There is a widespread acceptance that this might be Belgium’s best chance of winning a European Championship or World Cup for the first time, at least for this current generation.