This was as comfortable an opening night as Belgium could have wanted and, in the circumstances, they will be mightily grateful. Russia barely asked a single question so Roberto Martínez’s team were able to pace themselves without coming close to full pelt, a handy state of affairs given their injury worries and the tests this tournament will deal an ageing group.
Both teams deserve credit for putting themselves on the line after fears over Christian Eriksen’s health had cast a long shadow over the preceding hours, though, and the emotions spilled out when Romelu Lukaku drilled in an early goal that left the outcome in little doubt. Lukaku and Eriksen are teammates at Inter Milan and there was only one person on the striker’s mind as he sprinted off to celebrate. Thomas Meunier added another before half-time and, then, at the very end, Lukaku ran through to provide a deserved gloss.
As much as there could be a moment of poetry on such a traumatic day it arrived within 10 minutes of the start. Belgium’s first significant attack seemed to have faltered when Dries Mertens delivered harmlessly from the right and Lukaku, who was offside and knew it, lurked in the reasonable assumption Andrei Semenov would clear. But Semenov got his legs in a mess, inexplicably allowing the ball to ricochet through them and ensuring Lukaku could be deemed active again. Faced only by Anton Shunin, Lukaku finished crisply and made straight for the touchline camera. “Chris, Chris, I love you,” he shouted into the lens. It will be a sequence that resonates through the tournament and beyond.
Lukaku might have taken secondary relief in silencing the 32,000-strong home crowd, or at least the sections that jeered when Belgium took the knee before kick-off. Russia had opted to stay on their feet. There had already been a sense that this venue might be a more exacting opponent than Stanislav Cherchesov’s workaday side. This was where Belgium fell flat in the World Cup semi-final against France three years ago; it was also one of the locations where Russia, spurred on by feverish support, overperformed as hosts in the same competition.
Russia had looked brighter before Lukaku’s opener but, in truth, it was hardly a time to expect much of anyone. The horrifying scenes in Copenhagen, coupled with the rush of relief upon learning of Eriksen’s health, would have played heavily on the mind of any footballer and Lukaku was not the only one with an intensely personal concern. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen both worked closely with Eriksen at Spurs and Martínez may have been putting it lightly when, speaking once the picture was known to be sunnier, he said the buildup was “not an ideal preparation”.
Once Lukaku had scored his 39th goal of the season for club and country, the various pressures around Belgium dissipated.
There was a brief scare when Mário Fernandes bulleted a header straight at Thibaut Courtois but otherwise they were entirely comfortable, the absence of Kevin De Bruyne barely felt and Eden Hazard’s lack of match fitness rendered irrelevant. Hazard was on the bench, as expected, but the surname still carried enough clout. When his brother, Thorgan, checked inside and crossed from the left an unsighted Shunin could only parry unconvincingly. Meunier swept up the rebound, only six minutes after a head injury to Timothy Castagne had prompted his early introduction, and Belgium looked home and dry with little more than half an hour played.
By the second half Cherchesov had been moved to make three substitutions, albeit one of them resulting from Castagne’s clash with Daler Kuzyaev, but Russia carried little threat despite appreciable efforts to raise the tempo. Belgium had seen them off twice in qualifying, long ago though that seems, and had their number again here. Vertonghen had made the point a few days previously that his side are not all about creative vim; they proved it by looking happy to sit in and absorb bursts of pressure, occasionally springing forward but rarely threatening to extend their lead.
When Cherchesov replaced Russia’s hero of 2018, Denis Cheryshev, with Alexei Miranchuk just after the hour it made for an apt snapshot of their decline in the intervening three years: Cheryshev had come on for Kuzyaev but, 32 anonymous minutes later, he was deemed dispensable.
The more decorated of the Hazards eventually made his entrance but saw Vertonghen, who had landed awkwardly when clearing, go in the opposite direction moments later. Lukaku still had time to add a third, though, and ensure that is a problem for later.
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