Other Sports: Analysis: Top-ranked Belgium show their potential with classy display


ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) – Being top of the FIFA world rankings meant Belgium were always going to be among the European Championship favourites but Saturday’s comfortable 3-0 win over Russia sent out a strong reminder of their potential.

Although it was not an overwhelming performance, it underlined the efficiency and depth of a Belgium side who were rarely stretched and played well within themselves, yet emerged comfortable victors.

The triumph came without Kevin De Bruyne, still recovering from the facial fractures suffered in last month’s Champions League final, and with captain Eden Hazard only playing the last 20 minutes — when the contest had long been sewn up.

Hazard is still working his way back to fitness after an injury-hit season at Real Madrid while another of Belgium’s midfield pivots Axel Witsel is only expected to be used after the group phase as he recovers from an Achilles tendon injury.

Yet they were hardly missed as Belgium looked a yard quicker, spread the ball around with ease and dealt competently with the occasional Russian threat.

It will reaffirm that the Red Devils have the ability to deliver on their top ranking and win their first ever major tournament with a ‘golden generation’.

However, for Russia the possibility of yet another early exit from the Euros is now staring at them.

They went out in the first round in Poland in 2012 and did not win a game in France in 2016 but there was an expectation that their run to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2018 — albeit fuelled by home passion — would have seen them much improved and markedly more competitive.

Even with their supporters in the Saint Petersburg Stadium, there was little evidence of any forward leap in quality.

Rather, their howlers in defence allowed Belgium first an early lead and then a comfortable two-goal cushion by halftime thanks to Romelu Lukaku and Thomas Meunier.

Often the Russians had all 11 players behind the ball, yet never applied any pressure on the Belgians in possession and so were continually on the back foot.

After the break, a switch to a five-man defence made it tougher for Belgium to add more goals, although Lukaku did get a late third. Russia made a few forays up the other end but their visitors never look harried or under threat.

It will mean much introspection ahead of a game they need tow in St Petersburg against neighbours Finland on Wednesday while Belgium have the cushion of a comfortable start.

(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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