We continue our countdown to the European Championships with a look at Group B, featuring two former champions, as the world’s top-ranked team and a nation make their anticipated debut at a major finals.
FIFA Ranking: 1
Best Finish: Runners Up (1980)
Euro Highlight: Holding soon-to-be Champions Italy to a 0-0 draw in Rome to reach Belgium’s only major final at Euro ‘80.
Euro Low Point: Being dumped out as hosts at the group phase of Euro 2000 by Hakan Suker’s brace in Brussels.
Manager: Roberto Martinez
Key Player: Kevin De Bruyne
Belgium is again the world’s top-ranked side, qualifying for the finals with a perfect record and scoring 40 goals in the process. After the disappointment of the 2018 Nations League, this time Belgium has qualified for the semifinals. In all, they have lost just two of their 27 matches since finishing third at the World Cup.
On paper, Belgium has the strongest first eleven in the world. It comes from Thibaut Courtois in goal, through a solid defence, and the best midfield playmaker in the tournament in Kevin De Bruyne. In attack, they have a revitalized Romelu Lukaku alongside Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard. There is new talent emerging too in Youri Tielemans, Jason Denayer and Alexis Saelemaekers.
Veteran defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are starting to creak and key midfielder Axel Witsel looks set to miss the tournament through injury. Hazard is also struggling with an ankle injury and has struggled for top form at Real Madrid.
Roberto Martinez deserves credit for getting the best out of Belgium’s golden generation after years of underachievement. Knocking Brazil out of the World Cup proved they can win the big games. However, the expectations are bigger and this may be the last great chance for Belgium to win their first major trophy. If he has Hazard fit and firing, Martinez’s side are justifiable favorites.
FIFA Ranking: 38
Best Finish: As Soviet Union- Champions (1960), As Russia- Semi Finals (2008)
Euro Highlight: 1960: Viktor Ponedelnik’s extra time header makes the Soviet Union the first European Champions. As Russia, Andrei Arshavin’s brilliant performance see’s Russia stun Holland in the Euro 2008 quarter finals.
Euro Low Point: Abysmal performances on the pitch and appalling behaviour in the stands saw Russia exit Euro 2016 winless and bottom of their group.
Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov
Key Player: Artem Dzyuba
Russia surprised the football world by riding their host status all the way to the World Cup quarterfinals. They cruised to the Euros with eight qualifying wins, but were easily beaten home and away by Belgium, who they’ll face in St. Petersburg this summer. Successive Nations League campaigns have seen Russia compete in League B, but fail to win promotion to the top tier. A surprise loss to Slovakia has Russia second in their group at the early stages of World Cup qualifying.
Artem Dzyuba can’t stop scoring, netting 15 international goals since the World Cup. There is attacking talent to carve out the chances with Alexsei Mirnanchuk joining the established stars in Denis Cheryshev and Alexsandr Golovin.
Since Igor Akinfeev retired, Russia has struggled to find a comparable replacement in goal. The defence can be exposed by quality forwards and few of the squad play their football outside of their homeland.
Russia has piled up the goals against the lesser sides, but their struggles against better opposition gives them the look of flat track bullies. Dzyuba will be a handful for most defenses and having two home games in the group will help. Russia will concede goals and their hopes of making the knockout phase may depend on beating Finland in St. Petersburg.
Prediction: Group Phase Exit
FIFA Ranking: 10
Best Finish: Champions (1992)
Euro Highlight: John Jensen smashes in a rare goal to put Denmark ahead against favorites Germany in the Euro ’92 Final. Denmark wins the tournament for which they originally failed to qualify.
Euro Low Point: Euro ’88 proves a tournament too far for Denmark’s first great generation, who crash out with three straight group defeats.
Manager: Kasper Hjulmand
Key Player: Christian Eriksen
Denmark qualified from one of the tougher groups without defeat and more than held their own against England and Belgium in the Nations League. New boss Kasper Hjulmand came in promising a more progressive style of play and that began to bare fruit as Denmark banged in 14 goals in their opening three World Cup qualifiers.
While Hjulmand is bringing a more stylish brand of football to Denmark, this team’s biggest strength is their defensive spine in goalkeeper Kasper Schmichael, central defenders Simon Kjaer and Andreas Christensen, and midfield anchor Pierre Emile Hojbjerg. Christian Eriksen remains the creative fulcrum of the team with Martin Braithwaite and Yussuf Poulsen offering pace down the flanks.
Denmark lacks a proven striker. Kasper Dolberg isn’t proving to be prolific and Hjulmand is looking to youngsters to fill the number nine role, with FC Copenhagen’s Jonas Wind the most promising.
With home advantage and a newfound sense of adventure, Denmark should comfortably make the knockout phase. Beyond that, they’ll need Eriksen at his best and their defence to stay resolute, Denmark looks to be a dark horse this summer.
Prediction: Quarter Finalists
FIFA Ranking: 54
Best Finish: First-time qualifiers
Manager: Markku Kanerva
Key Player: Teemu Pukki
Finland has made it to their first major finals at their 31st attempt. They won six of their qualifiers to finish runners-up to Italy. After winning promotion Nations League B in 2018, they came close to promotion to League A earlier this season. They began World Cup qualifying in March by drawing their first two games.
Finland has a robust defence that conceded just 10 goals in qualifying (four of those were against Italy). Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky provides a strong last line of defence while Tim Sparv anchors the side in midfield alongside Glen Kamara. The star name is striker Teemu Pukki, who totaled 10 goals in qualifying and is coming off a prolific season with Norwich.
There is not a lot of creativity in the team and the onus is very much on Pukki to carry the attack. There is very little experience in European club competitions and only a handful of the squad has played in Europe’s top five leagues.
Getting to the Finals is a huge achievement for Finland. Their tight defence will make life difficult and they’ve already shown they don’t lack for mental strength. However, this is a big step up and picking up a few points from their local rivals might be the best they can realistically hope for.
Prediction: Group Phase Exit
June 12th, 12pm EST: Denmark vs Finland (Copenhagen)
June 12th, 3pm EST: Russia vs Belgium (St Petersburg)
June 16th, 9am EST: Russia vs Finland (St Petersburg)
June 17th, 12pm EST: Denmark vs Belgium (Copenhagen)
June 21st, 3pm EST: Denmark vs Russia (Copenhagen)
June 21st, 3pm EST: Belgium vs Finland (St Petersburg)
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