For European teams, the lack of opportunities to actually win a trophy can nullify the results they achieve. There is only one trophy on offer every two years (when there is no pandemic), and perhaps Spain at the beginning of the last decade has changed our perception of what has happened and what has not.
Belgium is seen as a disappointment, given this generation of players they have produced who have ranked it as the best team in the world by FIFA for some time (although those rankings and three money points obtained by metro). Belgium made the semi-finals of the last World Cup, the quarter-finals of the last European championships, and the quarter-finals of the World Cup first. The list of countries that would like to take that record is long. It’s better than England succeeded. Miles better than Holland. Better than Italy. It’s really better than Spain.
But no final, not to mention a trophy, gives a sense of failure. Especially when examining one of the lists that Belgium has brought to these tournaments. And it’s no different this time around. Belgium has the best Serie A striker in Romelu Lukaku. They have the best Premier League midfielder in Kevin De Bruyne, who seems to have been well after splitting his face in the Champions League final. They have one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Thibaut Courtois. There are tried and tested Premier League artists scattered throughout the team such as Youri Tielemans or Dennis Praet or Leandro Trossard. And then there’s Eden Hazard’s bedside table, which only a couple of years ago he was on track to win the Ballon d’Or, but then he went to Madrid and saw his body turn to fungus. Belgium just needs a couple of good weeks from him instead of several months to really spice up the summer.
What makes their finishes in tournaments frustrating, even if on paper is a good race. The last few Euros have seen them somehow lose against Wales in the quarter-finals, as they seemed completely bewildered by a team that played, you know, defense. The difference in organization was strong, which cost his career Marc Wilmots his job in favor of Roberto Martínez. The 2014 World Cup saw him bow down to a rather mediocre Argentina team. The last time we saw them in a tournament, they lost a one-match match against eventual champions France, and they could have taken it easily. They don’t even have a few steps to do.
What Martinez will have to navigate, or show his doubters who know how, is that the defense for Belgium will be All-Stars Wilfred Brimley. Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, and Thomas Vermaelen have a total of 398 years or so, and Martinez ‘The habit of setting up attacking midfielders as defenders in their usual 3-4-3 formation can lead them to the exposed side.
However, going forward this team should be as tasty as fucking. The other Danger, Thorgan, can be installed as one of these wingbacks. Or Yannick Carrasco, or Thomas Meunier, all of whom can wreak havoc on the wings. If the former Danger can put the fork long enough to combine with Lukaku and Dries Mertens reliably, there should be targets to blow.
The fate of Belgium should help as well. This group is not quite a passage, but it is close enough to be conceivable. In case of winning the group, their round of 16 game comes against one of the third places teams, and a quarter could see Italy, or the Dutch, or some upstart, all of whom Belgium would favor.
A peculiarity of this edition of the Euro is that although Belgium is the top team in this group, they will essentially play two away matches in the group stages, in Denmark and Russia. That shouldn’t be too much of an obstacle, but it makes things harder than they need to be.
From there, it’s really whether Lukaku can keep his seasonal dominance at the top level, or whether De Bruyne can pick a pass in excess of what he has in these tournaments, or whether he can avoid a team that has a ton of speed out wide. to extend that aged backline. A good decade has passed, but this Belgian team has been focused on better than good. This is probably his last shot.
Denmark lead a pretty strong team … until you get to the first half. There is a more than solid defense here, anchored by Milan’s Simon Kjær and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. The midfielder is the real strength with Christian Eriksen being supported by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Thomas Delaney of Dortmund. But there is no punch in front. It’s either Youssuf Poulson’s empty eye, who has managed just five goals with Leipzig heavily attacked this season, or youngsters like Andreas Skov Olsen or Jonas Wind who haven’t even tasted that level. You can almost always count on the Danes to get out of the group, and then bow out in a 16-game round no one will remember five minutes after it’s over. They’ll be stubborn outs for whoever faces them, but unless Eriksen manages to line up a bunch of freekicks, his lack of finish will see a definite ceiling on what he can achieve.
Russia is three days older than the water, even if they manage to play two games at home that could put them in third place good enough to reach the second round. This is the first major tournament in Finland, and we are proud of them all.