When Eden Hazard came on in the 71st minute for Belgium, the match was unofficially a training session for the world’s number one team giving their unfit talisman game time in a game that was effectively over.
3-0 against Russia. For Belgium, it was reputation intact. Prediction, accurate. Favourite tag enhanced. Everything went according to script for Belgium in St. Petersburg.
Russia, playing in front of a home crowd, tried what appeared to be people-pleasing formation. 4-2-3-1.
It was brave for a defensive-minded team accustomed to a 5-3-1-1 where a wide backline chokes the touchlines, something Tuchel employed masterfully against Guardiola.
Some 25 minutes into this game, however, howlers at the back would raise questions about how Russia decided to play this way.
And by half-time, Russia chopped and changed into a familiar 5-3-1-1. It was too late.
Early Lukaku goal, Meunier and late Lukaku goal would relax Belgium and alarm other title contenders.
Belgium, unlike Russia, stuck to their 3-4-3 deployed by coach Roberto Martinez and traditionally used the last four years. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Russia would play the game giving their more talented opponents too much space on the ball. They would not close them down quickly enough.
And so, when Belgium winger lifted up his head from the right wing, he had more than enough time to scan the field to find his target. And it was Lukaku, embedded behind the defensive line of the Russians in what appeared to be an offside position.
But the cross struck Andrei Semyonov who fumbled his clearance so that the ball fell to Lukaku with only the keeper to beat. Easy.
Despite having nine players behind the ball, a haystack of players did not make a difference once Lukaku was in the mix.
Will the Russians react? Hardly. Because it was hard. All attempts to spring an attack or a counter was stifled and stymied. And for long spells, the game was played in the Russian half with little room for them to spread out as the Russians were barricaded against Belgium team shape.
Strong Russian players were bullied by Belgium talent.
Stoke City is 53km from Manchester City but in Euro 2020, the style of football that defines these cities defined this match between Russia and Belgium.
Russia, long passes and one route football against Belgium, where talent on the ball meant a confidence to play total football.
Keeper Anton Shunin would fail to deal with a cross, parring it out of fright but not out of sight, gifting a well-positioned Meunier a simple task of delivering an unpressurised finish.
Russia would resume the second half more daringly. Zobnin’s shot after three minutes flew over for want of technique and three minutes later a cross to find the 6’6ft Russian forward, Dzyuba was punched out by Courtois.
For all of Russia’s renewed resolve, Belgium would contain them with a frightening calm before an 88minute Lukaku goal put a finishing punish to a second-half bravery.
Meunier would slip a pass through to Lukaku, peeling away from Igor Diveev to apply finesse for power.
Belgium’s golden generation will remember Russia as the place where they came 3rd at the 2018 World Cup.
They were then called the bronze generation in jest. And here again in St. Petersburg, they have started a campaign to turn bronze into gold.
In a game of 90-minutes, Russia was frightening only in the pronunciation of their players names and not their game.
Zhemaletdinov, Dzhikiya, Kuzyaev, Dzyuba.
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