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Friday, June 18, 2021

EURO 2020 Group B: Russia back on home soil, Belgium’s injury concerns

Finland will be keeping a close eye on striker Teemu Pukki's ankle injury and hoping it heals in time for the European Championship.

By: AP |
May 31, 2021 8:36:52 pm
Belgium players in action in the UEFA Nations League. (File)

Finland will be keeping a close eye on striker Teemu Pukki’s ankle injury, hoping it heals in time for the European Championship.

Pukki scored 26 goals this season to help Norwich get promoted to the Premier League and also led Finland into its first international tournament. He was even more prolific in qualifying with 10 goals in 10 games and joined some illustrious company _ finishing one goal behind Portugal great Cristiano Ronaldo and two behind England striker Harry Kane.

He hit the target with 70% of his shots, better than Ronaldo’s accuracy.

Pukki started qualifying for next year’s World Cup with three goals in two games, reaching 30 international goals to sit behind three behind Jari Litmanen’s national team scoring record. He’ll have a chance to catch Litmanen in Group B with matches against Denmark, Russia and Belgium.

No wonder Finland coach Markku Kanerva depends so much on the 31-year-old Pukki, whose excellent movement off the ball is one of his strong suits.

Pukki damaged right ankle ligaments playing for Norwich in early May and might eventually need an operation. However, that could come after the tournament.

“Our fingers are crossed for him. No other striker probably in western Europe has had more games in the last three years,” Norwich manager Daniel Farke said. “We hope everything goes well with the rehab so that he’s ready for the Euros.”

Still, if Pukki is not ready for the opening group game against Denmark in Copenhagen on June 12, Kanerva has other options and is building a promising young team.

Marcus Forss and Onni Valakari, both 21, gave a glimpse of things to come last November, scoring their first international goals in a 2-0 win at World Cup champion France.

Forss helped Brentford win the second-division playoff and reach the Premier League for the first time and, barring any transfers, he is poised to play against Pukki next season.

Finland’s quick and direct counterattacking style caused France problems last year and could be the right approach at Euro 2020. The team faces Russia in St. Petersburg on June 16 and stays in the same city to play Belgium five days later.

Russia back on home soil after 2018 World Cup run

Russia’s run to the quarterfinals at its home World Cup three years ago was a breakthrough. Since then, momentum has stalled.

Back on home soil for two of its three group games at this year’s European Championship, Russia wants to recapture the form which saw it beat Spain at the 2018 World Cup before a narrow loss to eventual finalist Croatia.

Russia can count on the roar of a home crowd once again at Euro 2020, with organizers preparing to allow 50% capacity in the cavernous Gazprom Arena, which can normally fit about 68,000 fans.

Russia will host Belgium and Finland in St. Petersburg before heading to Copenhagen to take on co-host Denmark.

The last World Cup put soccer back at the center of the national conversation in Russia after decades of underperformance on the field.

“We wanted to show the whole country that they can be proud of us, that soccer is alive,” Russia striker Artem Dzyuba said after the quarterfinal loss to Croatia.

Now they need to avoid another period of hibernation.

With coach Stanislav Cherchesov still at the helm, Russia has twice narrowly failed to win promotion to the top tier of the Nations League. Russia was all set to win its Nations League group until a dramatic slump in November with a 3-2 loss to Turkey and a 5-0 rout by Serbia. It ended up second.

Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup got harder when Russia lost to Slovakia 2-1 in March. They’re in the same group as Croatia.

Cherchesov has stuck by familiar faces ahead of Euro 2020. Six of the starters against Slovakia in March were over the age of 30, including Dzyuba, Brazil-born right back Mario Fernandes and 37-year-old winger Yuri Zhirkov. The team was one of the oldest at the World Cup, too.

A Premier League champion with Chelsea back in 2010, Zhirkov retired from international duty after the World Cup but returned the following year.

The big name missing since 2018 is goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, the hero of Russia’s World Cup penalty shootout win over Spain. He retired from international duty and Cherchesov has handed his spot to former backup Anton Shunin.

Monaco midfielder Alexander Golovin was a breakout star of the 2018 team and has become the main creative spark in Russia’s midfield. Emerging names include Lokomotiv Moscow winger Rifat Zhemaletdinov and Spartak Moscow striker Alexander Sobolev, who have both made their debuts within the last 12 months and add depth to the squad.

Schmeichel looking to match father’s achievement

Kasper Schmeichel has been matching his father’s remarkable achievements one by one over the last few years, and the European Championship will offer him the chance for another.

Schmeichel, who won the FA Cup with Leicester this year and the Premier League title with the team in 2016, will be in goal for Denmark when its hosts Belgium, Finland and Russia in Group B at Euro 2020.

Peter Schmeichel won three FA Cups, three Premier League titles and the Champions League at Manchester United, but perhaps his most astounding accomplishment came when Denmark won the European Championship in 1992.

“I want to achieve success with Denmark. I want to win the European Championship with Denmark,” Kasper Schmeichel said. “I want to try something wild with Denmark, I want to go to the World Cup and play as long as I possibly can.”

With their imposing stature and commanding presence, both goalkeepers have excelled with their national team. The 34-year-old Kasper has kept 32 clean sheets in 63 matches for his country, while his father had 38 in 103 appearances.

Twelve of Kasper’s 32 have come in his last 16 appearances for Denmark and his form for the national team and Leicester earned him the Danish player of the year award in January for the second straight season (and third overall).

“For me, it’s not about having a good year, it’s about the continuity and stability that my position requires,” Kasper Schmeichel said. “A goalkeeper has to be stable and have a high base level.

“I feel that I have had that for many, many years now, and I also think that the teams I play for appreciate that they know where they have me and what they can expect from me.”

Denmark also boasts a lot of other talent, with most of the players plying their trade at Europe’s top clubs.

Apart from Schmeichel, there’s Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen in defense, Inter Milan’s Christian Eriksen in midfield and Barcelona’s Martin Braithwaite up front.

Eriksen will be the one expected to create scoring chances. The 29-year-old attacking midfielder has made more than 100 international appearances and became a key part of the Inter team that won its first title in 11 years.

Denmark also has something of a lucky charm. Defender Jens Stryger Larsen has never been involved in a defeat in 33 appearances for his country, racking up 20 wins and 13 draws.

“It’s true that I have not lost yet, and it is a completely crazy statistic to have,” the 30-year-old Udinese defender said. “I’m happy to have it, and I would like it to continue a little longer.”

Star-studded Belgium has injury concerns

With its golden generation of players scattered throughout Europe’s biggest clubs, Belgium has all it needs to finally land the major soccer title it craves.

On paper, at least, because the form of some of the players on the top-ranked FIFA team raises a big question mark on its ability to go deep at this year’s European Championship.

In the wake of their third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez’s players breezed through their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with a perfect record of 10 wins _ with 40 goals scored and only three conceded.

But that was more than a year ago, before the tournament was pushed back by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Things have changed, and Belgium will start the competition with captain Eden Hazard struggling with form and confidence, the experienced Axel Witsel only recently back from a long absence, and Manchester City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne showing signs of fatigue.

Hazard, who had surgery on his ankle last year and has been underachieving with Real Madrid since joining from Chelsea, has not played with the national team in 18 months. More recently, following a forgettable display in the Champions League semifinals against his former club, he was mainly used as a substitute by then-Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane.

Despite his poor showings, Martinez included Hazard in his 26-man squad for the tournament, hoping he will get his form back at the right time.

“I think the medical condition is the best moment Eden had for a long, long time,” Martinez said. “The level of fitness is really satisfactory. And from that point we always look back on how important Eden Hazard is for the national team. He is our captain and the way that he performs in our environment is essential, and is vital.”

Back in January, it seemed almost certain that Witsel would miss the tournament after undergoing surgery on an Achilles tendon injury.

Martinez, however, made the most of UEFA’s decision to increase squad lists from 23 players to 26, including the Borussia Dortmund winger in his selection. Martinez hopes Witsel will be fully fit for the knockout phase of the tournament, even if he misses early matches.

Belgium has been placed in what appears to be a relatively easy group alongside Denmark, Russia and Finland and is expected to progress without too much trouble.

Martinez took a similar risk with defender Vincent Kompany back in 2018, taking him to Russia even though he had not fully recovered from an injury. Kompany missed the start of the competition but featured in five of Belgium’s seven matches as the Red Devils advanced to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion France.

Martinez said Witsel needs some more time to be ready but insists he feels “very confident that he could have a big role” during the tournament.

De Bruyne’s current issues are less serious. With so many uncertainties about Witsel and Hazard, Martinez is even expected to give the City player more responsibilities, and could switch to a five-man midfield with De Bruyne used as an additional playmaker.

De Bruyne has been in stellar form with City throughout the year, leading the Manchester club to the Premier League title and the Champions League final. An accumulation of small physical problems in recent weeks, however, is casting doubts about his ability to recover enough, especially with less than two weeks to rest between the Champions League final and Belgium’s opening game against Russia on June 12.

But with a solid defense and so many attacking riches at his disposal, Martinez can expect his experienced team to deliver. After all, striker Romelu Lukaku is in excellent form, and so is Youri Tielemans _ he scored a superb long-range goal to win the FA Cup for Leicester _ while the less-known but consistent Jeremy Doku and Leandro Trossard add depth to the bench.

“Hopefully with the crowds that we are going to see in this tournament it will be a starting point for what the future lies ahead,” Martinez said, “and hopefully we can have it with a real enjoyment and good performances from the Red Devils.”

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