Roberto Martínez upbeat as Belgium’s old guard have final tilt at major title

It is almost three years since Roberto Martínez, offering a positive analysis as always but failing to mask his disappointment, sat in the media marquee outside Gazprom Arena and bemoaned the fine margins that had eluded his Belgium side. “We couldn’t find that bit of magic in front of goal, that bit of luck,” he said. “But I’m so proud of the players. If you’re going to lose, you lose giving everything you’ve got.”

Belgium had not quite been good enough in their World Cup semi-final against France. There was no shame in that but it meant the exhaustively vaunted golden generation were a significant step closer to becoming the subject of a thousand “nearly men” essays a few years down the line. Now the old guard among them have what feels like one last tilt at a major tournament and, given the location of their Euro 2020 opener, an early opportunity to slay any ghosts that lingered after their departure from Russia.

They have returned to St Petersburg, where it all went wrong back then, and Martínez thinks his players will absorb any added pressure to put things right. “We’ve got a group that’s even more experienced and you grow with expectation,” he said, this time speaking to disembodied voices from a room within the stadium. “I don’t think this team will suffer because of the expectation. I think this is a team that needs to be really good to defeat the opposition and that’s the only focus we have.”

In truth Belgium may not need a spectacular performance on Saturday to see off a Russia side, obstinate but low on quality, whom they twice beat convincingly in the qualifiers. The presence of about 32,000 home fans in a half-full stadium could disorient in the current climate – “That’s an element we need to overcome,” Martínez said – but Belgium’s biggest obstacle may be a buildup that, even if they are blessed with better depth than most, has hardly been simple.

It is a particular frustration that Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel have stayed behind at the training camp in Tubize, just outside Brussels. The match has come too soon for De Bruyne, who had surgery last weekend for the eye socket fracture sustained in the Champions League final, and Martínez knows any participation for Witsel over the coming month will be a bonus given the midfielder tore an achilles tendon in January.

It is no disaster that Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker should staff the midfield in Witsel’s stead but Martínez could do without missing a tranche of established performers. De Bruyne may be back to face Denmark on Thursday, although unlike Witsel he is yet to train with the squad. His place could be taken by Dries Mertens, who is among the 10 thirtysomethings – a list De Bruyne will join the day after Belgium’s likely last-16 tie – for whom this summer carries special urgency.

Kylian Mbappé (centre) is shadowed by Jan Vertonghen (left) and Vincent Kompany as France beat Belgium in the 2018 World Cup semi-final. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

“This will be the tournament with the most pressure,” Jan Vertonghen, at his fifth major international competition, said on Thursday. “We are at our peak.”

Thibaut Courtois, a sprightly 29, struck a similarly upbeat note: “I don’t think we are too old. I think it’s a very good mix between youth and experience. We have everything to win and it’s a great moment to write history in this tournament.”

Five years ago they were heavily backed to do that in France before Wales, and the pirouetting Hal Robson-Kanu, shocked them in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. Perhaps they were too easy to play against when shorn of possession and when Martínez took over after that tournament there were certainly doubts surrounding his ability to instil the grit that might see them over the finishing line. But they were relatively circumspect in beating England 2-0 last November, and steady rather than sparkling in a composed friendly win against Croatia on Sunday. Tactically, many in the camp sense an important progression.

“We are very difficult to play against,” Vertonghen said. “That’s the merit of our tactics: our flexibility. This can be both an offensive and a defensive system.”

Should De Bruyne be detained beyond the trip to Copenhagen, which may settle first place in Group B, they may be thankful for the latter. It will be a pleasant surprise if Eden Hazard, who will be restricted to a substitute role against Russia, can play a sustained part in the tournament. Belgium’s established creative forces will be missed and much may depend on Romelu Lukaku’s ability to build on a year that has brought 38 goals for club and country.

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Russia have endured problems of their own given Alexander Mostovoy, the Zenit St Petersburg winger, has tested positive for Covid-19 and will no longer be part of Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad. Mostovoy was a fringe player, though, and the hosts can still call on their 2018 talisman Artyom Dzyuba in attack.

“There are some nerves, but of the pleasant kind because this is an important tournament,” Dzyuba said. It may be Belgium’s creaking legs that have more to lose.