Belgium (1), Denmark (10)*, Russia (38)*, Finland (54)
Group B is a bit top-heavy here, as they feature the World #1 in Belgium as well as another legit contender in Denmark. The one thing that could throw this group for a loop is the unknown of the Russians, who are hosting. But, the Finns seem like a squad that is just happy to be here, as they have qualified for a major international tournament for the first time ever.
Belgium’s “Golden Generation” might be slightly on the downslope in 2021, but they are still close enough to the pinnacle to be ranked #1 in the world and the one of the three favorites along with France and England (according to oddsmakers) to win this tournament. Their 3rd place at the 2018 World Cup was seen as somewhat of a disappointment, which should tell you all you need to know about just how much talent has come out of this tiny country in recent years. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne may both be on the “back nine,” but they’re much closer to the 11th tee than the 17th green…if you will allow me to overplay a metaphor. They also have Milan’s Romelu Lukaku (who scored 4 goals in the 2018 World Cup) and the Real Madrid keeper, Thibaut Courtois. This is a relatively navigable group, and the Red Devils are the clear favorites here with a shot to win their first ever major international tournament.
But, Group B isn’t going to be easy, particularly with a very dangerous Denmark team lurking. The Danes are red hot, winning three 2022 WC qualifiers by the combined score of 14-0 (pay no attention to the fact that it was Israel, Moldova, and Austria). They also beat England at Wembley Stadium in October, which was only the 3rd time in the last 50 games that the English national team has lost on their home soil. Plus, they are hosts in this tournament, so their Group Stage games will be played in Copenhagen. As long as I’ve been alive, they’ve had a Schmeichel in goal, so that’s a familiar sight, and they have Milan’s star playmaker, Christian Eriksen, leading the outfield. This is a very good team and their match against Belgium on Thursday is one of the best Group Stage matches of the entire tournament. The Danes did win this thing back in 1992, so there is a history here, as well.
The one thing we know about Russia here is that we really don’t seem to know much at all, do we? It appears as if they have completely flipped their roster from the last time we saw them on the international stage (when they made the Final 8 as the host of the 2018 World Cup). But, apparently, there are reasons to be optimistic. First of all, they are hosting, and they are notoriously tough at home (see: 2018 World Cup reference in previous sentence). But, they have a promising striker named Arten Dzyuba, and they have shown some offense potency in qualifying, but it has had to be as their defense has been somewhat shoddy (only 2 clean sheets and 18 goals conceded in just 11 games since the start of 2020). The combination of host venues and the presence of a weak Finland could get the Ruskies through to the Knockout Stage, and the unknown of this roster could be unknown “great,” but it could also be unknown for a reason. I see no reason to think that this team could challenge their best ever EURO finish of a semifinal appearance in 2008.
While Finland is probably just an also-ran here this year, it will be a fantastic month for the Finns, who will be playing in the first major tournament in their nation’s history! In EURO qualifying in 2016, Finland didn’t win a single game, going 0-9-2. And, just five years later, they finished second in their group (behind only Italy) to allow them to be the debutants of the EURO 2020 Ball. Their coach is a 57-year old former school teacher who has absolutely no club-level coaching experience. Led by Norwich’s Teemu Pukki (great name!), this team is reminiscent of the Icelandic emergence of the last half-decade. So, if you like underdogs, this collection of blond-haired, blue-eyed gentlemen might just be your team.
-I’m hopeful De Bruyne is able to be himself after having his face broken by Chelsea in the Champions League final two weeks ago (oh, in case anyone missed it, CHELSEA WON THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE). De Bruyne is a transcendent talent and probably the right answer to: “Who is the best player in the Premier League?” It would be nice to be able to watch him without having to root against him like I do when he’s playing for Man City.
-Eden Hazard will always be one of my all-time favorites, but he’s done basically nothing the last two years for Real Madrid due to injuries. He is a giant X factor for this tournament. Will we see the real Hazard or even something close to it?
-#ChelseaWatch: Andreas Christensen will be the key presence in defense for Denmark after coming on as a sub and turning in a very nice performance in the Champions League final (which Chelsea won, by the way. Champions of Europe. No big deal.)
-All I have on Russia is that Dzyuba, mentioned above, was dropped from the team temporarily this past year because of….well, you can see for yourself.