Belgium warmed up for the knockout rounds of Euro 2020 with a 2-0 victory over Finland in Saint Petersburg and while Eden Hazard was able to prove his fitness, it was Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku who proved they are key to leading this ‘Golden Generation’ to some silverware.
With the drama on the final night of Group A reserved for Copenhagen where Denmark beat Russia 4-1 to claim second place and an unlikely passage through to the last-16, Roberto Martinez rested and rotated. Hazard, though, was asked to complete 90 minutes after an injury-plagued season with Real Madrid that saw him make just 14 appearances in La Liga.
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He came through unscathed, but Martinez would be forgiven for feeling a larger sense of relief that De Bruyne and Lukaku did, too. A fully fit Hazard is important to this Belgium side, the No.1 ranked team in the world, but De Bruyne and Lukaku are absolutely critical to its success for the rest of this tournament.
De Bruyne had a hand in both goals in the second half, one scored by Lukaku, after starting a game for the first time since his Champions League final was cut short after suffering facial fractures.
“It was a tough game today,” said the Manchester City midfielder, who was named man of the match.
“We knew that Finland would play very compact and would be difficult to break down. But from the moment we scored, we knew they had to come out and it was more open. Our second half was a lot better.
“It’s always nice to get an individual award, but the most important thing is how we play as a team. I try to push the team to improve, individually too. We learned a lot today. Now we have to get ready for the next match.”
Hazard can be pleased with his night’s work, too, and not only because he was on the pitch for the first and last whistles for the first time since Real Madrid played Real Sociedad in November 2019. A lively, if not central figure, he had 40 passes in the final third — more than any other Belgium player — and had four shots, two of which were on target. He was also unfortunate not to have scored, only denied by an excellent save from Finland goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky after bursting through the left side of the penalty area.
But when Belgium were at their most clinical, it was De Bruyne and Lukaku in the thick of it. The pair gave Finland a warning in the first half when Lukaku disappeared between two white shirts and was found by a De Bruyne clip into the box. The Inter Milan striker couldn’t get enough on the header and it was gathered by Hradecky.
Finland were lucky again in the second half when De Bruyne threaded the needle with a pass into Lukaku, who took a crisp touch to turn and set himself in one movement before drilling his finish into the net. It was Lukaku at his best but VAR had spotted the tightest of offsides. That was the last of Finland’s fortune.
On 74 minutes, De Bruyne whipped in a corner from the left and 35-year-old Thomas Vermaelen leapt to head the ball in via the post and Hradecky’s outstretched hand. Belgium weren’t finished either and Lukaku eventually got his goal, taking another pass from De Bruyne, rolling a defender and lashing his shot into the corner for his third of the tournament and his 41st for club and country this season.
After topping Group B, Belgium will play one of the third-place qualifiers in the last 16 followed by a possible quarterfinal meeting with Italy in Munich on July 2. After guiding Inter Milan to the Serie A title with 24 goals in 36 games, the Italian defence will know all about the threat posed by the former Chelsea and Manchester United striker.
Finland, meanwhile, face a nervy wait. For much of the evening they were heading through in second place in Group A only for Denmark’s goal blitz and Lukaku’s second for Belgium to push them down into third. It’s possible that their three points from three games will not be enough to see them progress.
“I’m very proud of the work ethic my players showed today,” said Finland coach Markku Kanerva.
“You saw the quality of Belgium, but I’m extremely proud of the way my players fought. We also created a couple of chances, but those shots were blocked, unfortunately.
“We were a little unlucky with the first goal. I’m disappointed we couldn’t get a point. We now have a little, little chance of going through, but I’m proud of our performance in the tournament. We showed we belong here.”