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Belgium Euro 2020 preview - prediction, fixtures, squad, star player

Ahead of this summer's Euros, Sports Mole previews Belgium's chances as they endeavour to consign the 2016 quarter-final exit to Wales to history.

With a maiden international honour still eluding them, hopes are high for Belgium as they prepare for this summer's Euro 2020 campaign, but their supporters are growing restless as the golden generation aims to complete a successful venture to a piece of silverware.

The team led by Roberto Martinez - ranked number one in the world - have firmly established themselves as a footballing superpower following a period of misfortune in the early 2000s, and this summer's tournament represents Belgium's second consecutive appearance at the Euros.

Belgium players celebrate scoring against Greece on June 3, 2021© Reuters

A third-placed finish at the 2018 World Cup represented the Red Devils' best placement on the biggest stage of them all, but they were the victims of the Welsh dragon during the 2016 European Championships, as they bowed out at the quarter-final stage after returning to the tournament for the first time since 2000.

Here, Sports Mole provides an in-depth assessment of Belgium's chances at Euro 2020.


GROUP

Belgium have avoided the group of death and can look forward to relatively friendly fixtures in their Euros group, as 2018 World Cup hosts Russia await the Red Devils on matchday one before a trip to Copenhagen to take on Denmark.

Euros Group B

Martinez's side then make a quick return to Saint Petersburg to take on debutants Finland in their final group game, by which point they would have hoped to have claimed six points from six en route to a first-placed finish.

Belgium had to make do with a second-placed finish in their 2016 group as Italy topped the table, and while Denmark and Russia may both feel confident of springing a surprise, it would be a shock for the Red Devils not to advance as group winners.

FIXTURES

June 12: Belgium vs. Russia (8pm, Gazprom Arena, Saint Petersburg)
June 17: Denmark vs. Belgium (5pm, Parken Stadium, Copenhagen)
June 21: Finland vs. Belgium (8pm, Gazprom Arena, Saint Petersburg)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Perfection. That is how Belgium qualified. The Red Devils' place in the finals tournament was never in any doubt to begin with, but Martinez's side laid down a marker by taking 30 points from a possible 30 in Group I.

Having also won their final four games of qualification for Euro 2016, Belgium kicked off proceedings in Group I with a 3-1 victory over Russia, with Denis Cheryshev's equaliser on the day representing one of only three goals that Belgium would concede in their 10 games.

After easing past Cyprus 2-0, Martinez's side would go on to do the double over Scotland, Kazakhstan and San Marino without shipping a goal on any occasion, and they beat the latter by an aggregate scoreline of 13-0, with eight different players scoring in their 9-0 rout of the minnows in October 2019.

Belgium players celebrate in front of fans after qualifying for Euro 2020 in October 2019© Reuters

Georgi Dzhikiya notched up another goal for Russia against Belgium on the penultimate matchday, but the Red Devils were already 4-0 up by that point, and despite going 1-0 down in their final group game against Cyprus, they ultimately stormed to a 6-1 win to complete a perfect qualifying campaign.

The Red Devils qualified six points ahead of second-placed Russia - whose only defeats came against the Red Devils - and third-placed Scotland found themselves 15 points adrift of Martinez's men by the close of play in Group I.

Italy were the only other country to qualify having won all of their group games, and Belgium scored the most (40) and conceded the joint-fewest (three - level with Turkey) out of all 53 teams in qualifying.


RECENT FORM

Belgium have played more or less like the world's number-one ranked nation since booking their spot at Euro 2020, and they will enter the summer's tournament on the back of a nine-game unbeaten run across all competitions.

However, the Red Devils failed to properly assert their dominance in friendly fixtures against Greece and Croatia, as they were held to a 1-1 draw by the former before Romelu Lukaku netted the only goal of the game against Croatia.

Belgium's Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates on June 6, 2021© Reuters

Martinez's side also have a Nations League battle with France to look forward to later this year after they advanced in first place from their group with England, Denmark and Iceland, although they were beaten by the Three Lions 2-1 in October - their most recent defeat.

Belgium's most recent competitive matches saw them take seven points from their opening three games of World Cup qualification, as the Czech Republic held them to a 1-1 draw either side of victories over Wales and Belarus.

Six different players scored in their 8-0 rout of the latter during March's fixtures, and with some of Belgium's star names hardly firing on all cylinders, competition for places could hardly be greater for the in-form Red Devils.


SQUAD

Belgium squad for Euro 2020

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid), Simon Mignolet (Brugge), Matz Sels (Strasbourg)

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), Dedryck Boyata (Hertha Berlin), Jason Denayer (Lyon), Thomas Vermaelen (Vissel Kobe), Jan Vertonghen (Benfica), Timothy Castagne (Leicester City), Thomas Meunier (Borussia Dortmund)

Midfielders: Nacer Chadli (Istanbul Basaksehir), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Leander Dendoncker (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Dennis Praet (Leicester), Youri Tielemans (Leicester), Hans Vanaken (Club Brugge), Axel Witsel (Dortmund)

Forwards: Thorgan Hazard (Dortmund), Michy Batshuayi (Crystal Palace), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace), Jeremy Doku (Rennes), Eden Hazard (Real Madrid), Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Leandro Trossard (Brighton)


STAR PLAYER - KEVIN DE BRUYNE

Kevin De Bruyne in action for Belgium in March 2021© Reuters

Talismanic playmaker Kevin De Bruyne enters this summer's European Championship off the back of continental heartbreak in the Champions League final, as the former Chelsea man left the field with tears in his eyes - one of them swollen - and was forced to witness his old employers get the better of his sky blue favourites.

De Bruyne confirmed after the game that he sustained two fractures in the facial area, but he will undoubtedly do whatever it takes to be fit for most of Belgium's Euros campaign and keep the momentum going from an otherwise stellar season with City, although Martinez does not expect him to feature in the opener with Russia.

The 29-year-old scored 10 goals and set up 18 more across all competitions during the 2020-21 campaign and has shown similar levels of ruthlessness in Belgium colours, chalking up 21 goals and 38 assists for his country so far.

De Bruyne claimed three of those assists in Belgium's Euro 2016 campaign and influenced games left right and centre during qualification for this summer's tournament, as he registered four goals and seven assists from six Group I games - missing the other four due to injury.

With the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens ready to feed off of De Bruyne's remarkable playmaking abilities and vision - assuming his eye injury has not affected his prowess on that front - Belgium's hopes of long-awaited silverware will certainly rest on his shoulders.


MANAGER - ROBERTO MARTINEZ

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez pictured on June 6, 2021© Reuters

Ten years on from trying to keep Wigan Athletic afloat in the Premier League, Roberto Martinez is now in control of the reins at the number one ranked nation in the world, but one FA Cup with the Latics is the only trophy he can boast from his managerial career so far.

Martinez took over at Belgium after their Euro 2016 disappointment and suffered defeat in his first match in charge against Spain, but he has since won 43 games at the helm while losing just three more times to France, England and Switzerland.

The Spaniard never reached the level of pedigree required in his playing career to represent his country on the international stage, but he steered Belgium to a third-placed finish at the 2018 World Cup and has witnessed his side score a staggering 167 goals in his 56 games in charge.

With managerial vacancies opening up all over Europe, it was no surprise to see Martinez being linked with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid and Barcelona, but the 47-year-old will only have eyes on Euros glory with Belgium this summer.


EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD

Best finish: Runners-up (1980)

Having failed to qualify for the European Championships three times running between 1960 and 1968, Belgium's first appearance at the finals was a memorable one, as they claimed a third-placed finish in 1972 before failing to qualify for Yugoslavia 1976.

During the eight-team format in 1980, Belgium and West Germany finished atop their respective groups to set up a meeting in the final at the Stadio Olimpico, and it took just 10 minutes for the latter team to lead as Horst Hrubesch's half-volley slipped through Jean-Marie Pfaff's grasp.

Rene Vandereycken would restore parity with a powerful penalty on the 75-minute mark, but Belgium shot-stopper Pfaff once again failed to cover himself in glory for what proved to be the winner, as he came out to meet a corner and got nowhere near the ball, allowing Hrubesch to head home his second of the final into an empty net.

A group-stage exit in 1984 would be Belgium's last appearance at the tournament until 2000, where once again they fell at the first hurdle in the group before failing to qualify for the 2004, 2008 or 2012 editions.

The golden generation made their return in 2016 and breezed past Hungary in the last 16 to set up a quarter-final showdown with Wales - which they were overwhelmingly expected to prevail in - but the Welsh dragons stunned the continent to win 3-1 and leave Belgium ruing what could have been once again.


PREDICTION

A straightforward march to the summit in Group B ought to give Belgium a relatively easy route into the quarter-finals against one of the third-placed sides, but for all the promise of the past few years, the Red Devils just do not seem to have that psychological edge to claim a major honour.

While there should be no repeats of that infamous defeat at the hands of Wales, we can only envisage Martinez's men getting as far as the final four before France force them to continue their agonising wait for silverware.

VERDICT: Semi-finals

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