After surprisingly missing out on the final stage of the Nations League – thanks to a surprising 5-2 defeat in Switzerland – Belgium will need to go the long way around and qualify for Euro 2020 via the qualification groups. This isn’t as much of a stress as it might sound; they merely need to finish first or second in a group where their biggest challenges will come from Russia and Scotland. However, they’ll need to be on their game in Brussels to get things off to a positive start.
Russia, themselves, have a positive 2018 to look back on. They got as far as the quarter-finals in a World Cup they hosted – well beyond the early elimination most experts had predicted for them. Nonetheless, the feeling persists that they’re just not very good. Away from the home crowds of last summer, and facing a qualifying competition for the first time in four years, they have a lot of people to convince of their merits, especially after finishing second in their Nations League group to a limited Sweden side.
Belgium vs Russia Prediction: Belgium 3-1 Russia
Belgium come into this game sat atop the FIFA rankings – which may be more a comment on the idiosyncratic way those rankings are compiled than anything else. Their opponents here are in a lowly 50th spot even after seeing off Spain at the World Cup, but the key point is that while Russia are low on star power, Belgium are in possession of a Golden Generation of players, able to call on Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku among many others, and having narrowly lost to eventual winners France in Russia 2018. This should be straightforward for the Red Devils. Then again, the same was said of their ill-fated visit to Switzerland.
Our recommended tip: More than 2.5 goals
From back to front, Belgium have the luxury of calling on a squad littered with players from Europe’s elite sides. Even with boss Roberto Martinez’s attacking instincts, they are sure to leave quality attackers on the bench here – while Lukaku may get the nod ahead of Crystal Palace loanee Michy Batshuayi, the latter is often productive as a substitute for club or country. Up against a defence that is considered weaker for the retirement of the Ignashevich twins (who were mediocre even when they weren’t pushing 40), it’s fair to expect Belgium to win this game with a cushion, and exceed the 2.5 goals needed to win this 8/13 bet with Coral.
The most recent meeting between these sides was a friendly (drawn 3-3), played in Moscow almost exactly two years ago but perhaps the previous one, in 2014, is more relevant. That game, played in the group stage of that year’s World Cup on Brazilian soil, saw Russia attempt to strangle the attacking instincts of the Belgian side. This was achieved with some success, but a Divock Origi goal with two minutes left ensured that Belgium would take the points. In the intervening five years, it is widely felt that Belgium have gelled and improved – few would claim the same for Russia’s squad, despite last summer’s surprise.
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Players to watch: Eden Hazard & Artem Dzyuba
Hazard’s recent form at club level has been patchy – something which many would attribute to the fact that he’s mentally checked out of Chelsea and has only just stopped short of speculating on what colour the carpets will be in the home he buys in Madrid. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why Real so clearly covet the Belgian attacker – he’s perhaps the most complete attacking player currently operating in world football, equally deadly with his assists as with his eye for goal. With the supporting cast he has here, expect fireworks.
In a side as pedestrian as the current Russian set-up, a hit-rate of 15 goals in 32 matches is legitimately impressive. While Dzyuba may lack the all-round game that would attract the attention of clubs outside his native country, he has the happy knack of poaching goals even when his team is starved of possession. If the visitors are to get anything other than hammered in Brussels, they’ll need Dzyuba’s eye for goal to be every bit as sharp as usual; he may not get many chances, but can be relied upon to put away any he does get.