Title contenders Belgium stretched their perfect Euro 2020 record to 13 consecutive wins in qualifiers and at the tournament so far, with their 2-0 victory over Finland on Monday that put them top of Group B down to experience and patience.
Belgium, the world’s top ranked team who had already secured their spot in the knockout stage with two wins in their previous two games, had to wait until the 74th minute to puncture their opponents’ stubborn resistance.
But even as they missed several golden chances and had an effort from Romelu Lukaku narrowly ruled offside, the 2018 World Cup semi-finalists were never rattled and kept their composure, circulating the ball with Kevin De Bruyne repeatedly trying to slice open the Finnish defence.
Billed as the biggest game in Finland’s history, they piled players into defence in an attempt to contain the Belgian attacks but were reduced to a supporting role as they eventually snapped under sustained pressure.
With De Bruyne, Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard all starting after having come on as substitutes in the previous game, it was only a matter of time until Belgium’s superior experience outmarted the Finns’ dogged defending.
At no time did the Belgians, who have five players with 100 caps or more, give up control and the team that were once the dark horse in tournaments, giving stronger sides a run for their money but ultimately failing to win a title, are now firmly established as a contender.
They needed a bit of fortune to open their account but luck favours the brave and a Thomas Vermaelen header bounced back from the woodwork and into the net off goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky for a fully deserved lead.
Seven minutes later Belgium struck again with yet another De Bruyne pass finding Lukaku and the forward bagged his third goal of the tournament.
Lukaku, who has now scored 21 goals in his last 17 competitive matches for Belgium, has needed seven shots to score his three tournament goals.
But it was team mate De Bruyne who collected the man of the match award as Belgium, European Championship finalists in 1980, won all of their Euro group matches for the first time and sent a statement of intent to other title rivals.
Photo – Eden Hazard (C) of Belgium and teammates celebrate during the UEFA EURO 2020 group B preliminary round soccer match between Finland and Belgium in St.Petersburg, Russia, 21 June 2021. EPA-EFE/Anton Vaganov / POOL