Eighteen months ago, Belgium lost to France in the Krestovsky stadium in Saint Petersburg. It was a crushing defeat and some observers felt that this generation had thrown away their last chance of winning a major trophy. Now Roberto Martinez’s team are back and although there’s a long way to go before the final of the 2020 European Championships, it’s an important game for both sides.
This has always been the stand-out game in Group I. There will be 68,000 in the Gazprom Arena on Saturday, and you’ll need good contacts to get a ticket. On the way to this game, the two sides have scored 57 goals, conceding just five. In Brussels, Belgium won 3-1 and that means that they will top the group is they avoid a heavy (more than two goals) defeat. So far, Belgium have played eight and won them all.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belgium have never lost to Russia; in six games, they’ve won four and drawn two. It could be a feast of attacking football and it’s to be hoped that Eden Hazard has taken his international form from Madrid and that Kevin de Bruyne has forgotten all about Anfield. Belgium need big games from talented Leicester City midfielder Youri Tielemans, who is enjoying his time in the Premier League, and Dortmund’s Axel Witsel, who was excellent in an attacking vein against Inter in the Champions League.
For Russia, Artem Dzyuba will relish playing on his home turf and he already has nine goals in the qualifiers, albeit against weak opposition. He’s been backed up by Valencia’s Denis Cheryshev, but who misses the game through injury, and young Monaco midfielder Aleksandr Golovin.
Ahead of the match, Martinez has been talking up his defenders, saying they’re ready to step into the breach, following the absences of warhorses Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen. Indeed, it seems that I am condemned to write eternally about concerns in Belgium’s defence.
I started this blog almost a decade ago and in 2010, I gave my reasons why Belgium would not be going to the Euro 2012 finals. These included a dearth of top-class full backs, despite an abundance of quality and experienced performers in central defence,
Nine years on, only Toby Alderweireld has been an ever-present in defence, and hardly any youngsters have come through, either in central defence or at full back. Martinez has papered over the cracks playing a 3-4-3 formation, with Meunier and usually Thorgan Hazard as wingbacks.
Now, for the game in Saint Petersburg, the back three is in a state of flux. Thomas Vermaelen has joined the group, but he picked up a calf injury playing for J1 side Vissel Kobe and is a major doubt. It’s likely that Hertha Berlin’s Dedryck Boyata will start, with other contenders being Lyon’s Jason Denayer, Club Brugge’s Brendon Mechele and Anderlecht’s Elias Cobbaut. Another option is Wolves utility man Leander Dendoncker.
Martinez has hardly ever selected Denayer, while Mechele – who has only had a couple of minutes against Kazakhstan – and Cobbaut totally lack international experience. The latter, just 21, was signed by Anderlecht from KV Mechelen and was a surprise call-up. Martinez argued that he wanted Cobbaut in the squad as he’s left-footed.
Belgium did brilliantly in the 2018 World Cup and were arguably the best team in the competition. However, with many of their regular defenders over the age of 30 and with a lack of quality replacements, this match with Russia reminds me of the game with Wales at the 2016 Euros. Wilmots was forced to bring in Denayer and Jordan Lukaku, with the disastrous results known to all.
This will be Belgium’s hardest game in the qualifiers and it will be a major examination for whoever plays in defence. It won’t be the end of the road if Belgium don’t top their group, but the match could be a foretaste of what is in store when teams such as Spain, Italy, France and whisper it quietly – England – are in the opposite corner.