Clinical Belgium put Finland on brink of Euro 2020 exit

Belgium finish in first place in Group B and join Italy and the Netherlands in qualifying with maximum points

Soccer Football - Euro 2020 - Group B - Finland v Belgium - Saint Petersburg Stadium, Saint Petersburg, Russia - June 21, 2021 Belgium's Romelu Lukaku scores their second goal Pool via REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
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Three straight wins, seven goals and its top players with game time in their legs.

For Belgium, the group stage at the European Championship could hardly have gone better.

The world’s top-ranked team beat Finland 2-0 on Monday to finish in first place in Group B and join Italy and the Netherlands in qualifying with maximum points.

Finland finished in third place in its first appearance at a major tournament, nipped by Denmark after its 4-1 victory over Russia in Copenhagen.

Belgium’s second goal, scored by Romelu Lukaku in the 81st minute for his third at Euro 2020 could prove significant because it left the Finns as the worst third-place team in the three completed groups.

They have only a small chance of qualifying as one of four best third-place finishers.

That did not stop a vocal section of white-and-blue-clad Finland supporters from staying behind long after the final whistle at Saint Petersburg Stadium to serenade their team.

The players eventually came out of their locker room and back on to the field to applaud.

“I feel somewhat empty at the moment,” Finland coach Markku Kanerva said.

Finland was on its way to the draw that would have secured the team second place in the group when goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky had the misfortune of scoring a cruel own-goal in the 74th minute.

A header from Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen bounced down and hit the post, rebounded on to the outstretched hand of Hradecky and went over the line before he had chance to scoop it away.

He fell to his knees in anguish.

Belgium will play one of the four third-place finishers in the round of 16 in Sevilla on Sunday.

Coach Roberto Martinez will have more options after seeing Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel proving their fitness after recent injuries.

De Bruyne came off in second-half stoppage time, during which a woman ran on to the pitch before being quickly escorted away.

He had just set up Lukaku for his goal, for which the striker turned his marker inside the area and shot low and right-footed past Hradecky.

The Manchester City midfielder, back playing after facial injuries sustained in the Champions League final, also supplied the corner that Vermaelen headed towards goal for the opener, and generally ran the game from central midfield.

Hazard and Witsel played the whole game after their own fitness problems, while Martinez was also able to rest first-choice players such as midfielder Youri Tielemans and defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.

“Three wins, three professional performances, three different styles,” Martinez said, referring to previous wins in the group over Russia, 3-0, and Denmark, 2-1.

“To be able to see 90 minutes from Axel and Eden, and Kevin was almost on the pitch for 90 minutes, that was very satisfying.

"On top of that, every outfield player has been on the pitch in these three games. It is the perfect moment to go forward to the next game.”

The match in St Petersburg was billed as the biggest in Finland’s history by Kanerva, and some of the team’s fans were in tears during the pre-game national anthem.

A drummer in one section of the Finland supporters kept up the beat throughout the game and there was a huge roar when the half-time whistle was blown, with their team coping fairly comfortably.

Belgium had not pushed too hard by then, knowing a draw guaranteed first place, but Lukaku thought he had scored in the 65th minute when he collected a pass, again from De Bruyne, and slotted home a finish from 10 metres.

It was ruled out after a video review by a marginal offside call, prompting a huge roar from the Finland fans, many of whom threw bottles towards, but not on to, the field.

They were soon to be disappointed by the two late goals Belgium scored.

Lukaku’s tied him with Cristiano Ronaldo, Georginio Wijnaldum and Patrik Schick with a tournament-leading three goals.

“Romelu is our not-so-secret weapon,” De Bruyne said. “When he’s in the box, I know exactly where he is, I know exactly where to find him.

"It becomes difficult for defender to get in front of him. He’s huge.”

Meanwhile in the other Group B match, Denmark made it through to the last 16 of Euro 2020 on Monday after a convincing 4-1 win over Russia, which meant they finished second in Group B.

Goals from Mikkel Damsgaard, Yussuf Poulsen, Andreas Christensen and Joakim Maehle gave the Danes their first win of the tournament at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen.

Delirious fans showered each other with beer as Denmark rattled in the goals that allowed them to end the group stage in party mood ,after the trauma of Christian Eriksen's mid-match collapse in their opening fixture against the Finns.

Kasper Hjulmand's team will face Wales in the last 16 in Amsterdam on Saturday.

The Russians go home after coming off worst in a three-way, head-to-head tie-breaker with Finland and the Danes.