Raheem Sterling still has the determination and strength of character to make an impact on the biggest stage, according to former Manchester City defender Nedum Onuoha.

Sterling is expected to start England's opening Euro 2020 game against their 2018 World Cup conquerors Croatia at Wembley, even though his club form dwindled during the second half of the 2020-21 campaign.

So often an automatic pick during the Pep Guardiola era, Sterling fell out of favour for Manchester City as they continued their progress towards a third Premier League title in four seasons.

The 26-year-old has only scored once apiece for club and country since February, with rumours over a deterioration of relations with Guardiola and speculation surrounding whether or not he will sign a new contract at the Etihad Stadium providing unhelpful background noise.

However, even allowing for the impressive attacking options at his disposal – including Phil Foden, who has edged Sterling out of the left-wing berth at City – England boss Gareth Southgate still counts the former Liverpool player as a key man.

"I think he'll pull through, he's pulled through difficult situations before," Onuoha told Stats Perform.

"For the last two or three years, Raheem's been playing so well that that's been his position and nobody's been able to [get him out of the City team].

"But a slight drop off in performances, for whatever reason, grants somebody else an opportunity, and [Foden] took the opportunity and he's played exceptionally well.

"I think Raheem understands that because he's somebody who's been at the club long enough. He's happy at the club, it seems. I think he will sign a new long-term deal because it sounds like there's discussions about it.

"This is somebody who, when Fernandinho was not on the field, has worn the captain's armband. So he understands it, he understands the manager and he understands he wants to play and make a big difference."

Since featuring prominently in England's run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, where Sterling's tireless running along Harry Kane did not yield any returns in terms of getting on the scoresheet, he has underlined his importance to Southgate.

Sterling has 12 goals for the Three Lions across all matches post-Russia 2018, bettered only by skipper Harry Kane (15).

When penalties are taken out of the equation, Sterling actually comes out on top by 11 to 10, while his six assists are second to Kane's nine.

Nevertheless, this sample size spans almost three years, taking in a purple patch of career-best form in 2019 that the player is now straining to rediscover.

A surprise recall for City's 1-0 Champions League final defeat to Chelsea in Porto last month proved underwhelming, but Onuoha pointed towards Sterling's inclusion in the EFL Cup final win over Tottenham in April.

He turned in an all-action performance for Guardiola, making five attempts on goal and winning the free-kick that led to Aymeric Laporte heading the only goal.

"There were points in the season where people were questioning his performances and then I remember him playing in the League Cup final and I thought he was exceptional," Onuoha said.

"He didn't look like somebody who was lacking confidence, he looked like somebody who was desperate to play well enough to guarantee himself more football going forward.

"And I think when you are driven and competitive in the way that he is, it's a shame that you're not playing [for your club], but you kind of understand it.

"As well as that, it's not something that puts a weight on your shoulders; it's something that inspires you to get better.

"At City, there are people who thrive under that type of pressure - as a consequence, it makes them perform better. I think Raheem falls right into that category."

Matthijs de Ligt will watch from the sidelines as both the Netherlands and Ukraine aim to end miserable runs in their Euro 2020 opener on Sunday.

De Ligt missed the Oranje's final warm-up friendly due to a groin issue and will not recover in time to face Ukraine in Amsterdam.

Coach Frank de Boer said: "The game comes a little too early. We don't want to take any chances. We've got two more group games.

"If it had been very important, he could have played. He's very close to it."

It is a blow to a Netherlands side who have not won at the European Championship since the 2008 group stage.

The Dutch were quickly beaten in the knockout phase of that competition, lost all three matches at Euro 2012 and then failed to qualify four years later.

Centre-back is suddenly a potential area of weakness, with Virgil van Dijk missing the tournament, while De Boer only confirmed the identity of his starting goalkeeper – 38-year-old Maarten Stekelenburg – on Saturday.

Regular number one Jasper Cillessen, cut from the squad following a positive coronavirus test, was the only ever-present in qualifying besides De Ligt.

Ukraine might make for accommodating opponents for Stekelenburg, though, having themselves lost five in a row at the Euros and failed to score in each defeat.

Andrey Shevchenko, now their coach, is the only player to have ever scored for Ukraine at the finals, as they have failed with 67 shots since his 2012 brace against Sweden.


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Netherlands – Memphis Depay

Even with De Boer switching to an unpopular 5-3-2 formation, Depay will be the chief threat in attack. Although Georginio Wijnaldum (eight) outscored his team-mate in qualifying, Depay was involved in a goal every 38 minutes (six goals and seven assists in 495 minutes) – the best rate of any player involved in five or more.

Ukraine – Andriy Pyatov

If Depay is as involved as the Netherlands hope, that will mean another busy outing for Pyatov. The Ukraine goalkeeper saved 88.6 per cent of the shots he faced in qualifying (31 of 35), which was the best rate of any keeper to appear in six or more games.


KEY OPTA FACTS

– This is the first meeting between the Netherlands and Ukraine at a major tournament (World Cup or European Championship). The Dutch are unbeaten in their two friendly encounters – winning 3-0 in Rotterdam in May 2008 and drawing 1-1 in Donetsk in August 2010.
– The Netherlands are playing their first major tournament game at the Johan Cruyff Arena since the Euro 2000 semi-final against Italy, a game in which the Dutch failed to score despite having 31 shots and 71 per cent possession (0-0 after extra time, 1-3 on penalties).
– Since and including 1988, only Germany (six) have reached the semi-finals of the European Championship more often than the Netherlands (four). However, the Netherlands have not made the final four since 2004 and they have not won a game in the tournament since 2008.
– After winning their first game at the European Championship (2-1 v Sweden, 11 June 2012), Ukraine have subsequently lost their past five. In fact, only Yugoslavia have had a longer losing run in the history of the tournament (six in a row, from Euro 1968 to Euro 1984).

Kylian Mbappe has raised questions over his future at Paris Saint-Germain, revealing he is unsure if the French club is the best place for him.

France superstar Mbappe was in sensational form in the 2020-21 season, yet while PSG won the Coupe de France and Trophee des Champions, his efforts were not enough to help them successfully defend their Ligue 1 title, or propel them to Champions League glory.

In Europe's top five leagues, only Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowksi (48) scored more goals in all competitions than Mbappe, who managed 42 in 47 appearances, averaging out at one every 88.62 minutes.

Like Erling Haaland, Europe's other free-scoring youngster, Mbappe achieved at a greater rate than his expected goals (xG) number, which averaged out at 34.14, while also providing 11 assists.

Now, Mbappe will be looking to drive France to glory at Euro 2020, with Les Bleus kicking off their campaign against Germany on Tuesday.

However, while his current focus is on contributing to Didier Deschamps' side, speculation continues over Mbappe's future at club level.

PSG have already tied Neymar down to a new contract, but despite reported discussions, have yet to agree a deal with Mbappe, who could leave the club on a free at the end of next season.

And it seems Mbappe is considering his options, with the 22-year-old World Cup winner telling France Football: "I don't necessarily need to go fast. I have to make the right decision, which is difficult, and give myself every chance to make up my mind.

"I am in a place where I like myself, where I feel good. But is this the best place for me? I don't have the answer yet.

"I know that a project with or without me is not quite the same for the club."

Mbappe, however, insists he has been, and will continue to be, up front with PSG over his plans.

"PSG understand my feelings. Probably also because they know that I will not be sneaky," he added.

"Being a great player also proves itself outside the field where you have to know how to do things cleanly and with class."

Real Madrid have been heavily linked with Mbappe, with Carlo Ancelotti asked about the possibility of signing the player during his unveiling as Los Blancos' new head coach last week.

It remains to be seen as to whether Madrid would have the finances to pull off such a move this year, however, while Premier League champions Manchester City have also been rumoured to hold an interest.

Turkey head coach Senol Gunes says his side "lost control of the game" after conceding the first goal in Friday's 3-0 loss to Italy in the opening game of Euro 2020.

The Crescent Stars defended well in the first half, playing a counter-attacking style, with the game goalless at the break.

Turkey added a bit more adventure in the second half, opening themselves up when Domenico Berardi's 53rd minute cutback deflected in off Merih Demiral.

Italy took complete control of the game from there, with further strikes from Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne.

"We started to lose the ball and couldn't get forward. Italy were better – we lost to the better team," Gunes said.

"They were more dominant than us, we lost the ball so many times and this just gave the advantage to our opponent.

"After we conceded the first goal we just really got distracted and lost control of the game."

The heavy defeat leaves Turkey with work to do in Group A, with Wales to play Switzerland on Saturday in the other group game.

Gunes can take comfort knowing that Turkey have lost their opening match at every major tournament they have entered (Euros and World Cup), losing seven out of seven, yet had some success in the past.

"I can say, technically speaking, we played a very strong Italian team," Gunes said. "I’m not very satisfied with the score. I was expecting better football here.

"But even if we lose or win, the competition will continue. We just lost against a host team and we have two more important games against Wales and Switzerland.

"We’ll tidy ourselves up and will start to prepare for those. Italy used the pitch very well, they just kept the ball and physically we fell from the game."

Turkey return to action on Wednesday in Baku against Wales.

Raheem Sterling has been awarded an MBE for his services to racial equality in sport, with England team-mate Jordan Henderson similarly recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

Manchester City winger has campaigned consistently against racism in football, most notably since a social media post in December 2018 after he was abused during a match at Chelsea.

Sterling highlighted the contrast in certain aspects of media coverage given to black and white footballers and was widely praised for making his feelings public.

He has since leant his weight to initiatives such as the United Nations #FightRacism campaign, along with launching his own charitable foundation.

“Receiving this honour is a fantastic feeling and a proud moment - not just for myself but for my family and friends," the 26-year-old said.

"I am grateful to have been recognised but my priority is to try to help to educate society and myself. If it doesn’t start from within, then there’s no way you can help others. I’m learning every day.

"My motivation for racial equality is to get people to understand the difficulties people from diverse backgrounds face and create an environment where everybody is equal."

The issue of protest in favour of racial equality has dominated the build-up to England's Euro 2020 campaign, with a section of home supporters booing their team for taking a knee in solidarity before kick-off.

Premier League teams have made the gesture - one synonymous with campaigns for racial justice going back to the days of Martin Luther King and, more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement - before all games since last year's coronavirus shutdown, with Sterling a vocal early supporter.

"I feel we are starting to make a step in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do. There are still a lot of things we can get better at as a society, such as social media with people taking more accountability," Sterling said.

"I think that is a major factor in achieving the ultimate goal of racial equality. We also need to support young people and give them opportunities to show what they are capable of achieving.

"I’ve launched a foundation for underprivileged kids from deprived backgrounds. It’s something that I’m really excited to work on because I can relate to it and I will give 100 per cent.

"If I can help to change one or two lives then I’ve done a massive thing there. If you want to make change then it has to start from yourself."

Liverpool captain Henderson was given an MBE for his services to football, having followed up 2018-19 Champions League success with the Premier League title in 2019-20, along with his charitable efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Henderson was a leading figure in captains from Premier League clubs establishing the #PlayersTogether initiative to support NHS Charities Together.

"There are many privileges that come from playing professional football, but having a platform to promote a charitable cause such as #PlayersTogether and NHS Charities Together is as big a privilege as any," Henderson said.

"It's important for me to state that although the honour has been issued to me personally, the credit must be shared to a far larger group of people and I accept this in the knowledge I was part of something special, rather than the reason for it.

"The other Premier League captains were the catalyst and the rest of the players, including my own teammates at Liverpool, were a driving force behind the scenes. Huge numbers of football fans, from across the country, also displayed great generosity in donating.

"But the true heroes are the NHS staff; they put themselves in harm’s way to serve and protect us. Therefore I dedicate this to all the nurses, doctors, carers, porters, admin workers, cleaners, security personnel and every single individual who devotes their career and their lives to making the NHS the part of British life we are rightly most proud of as a nation."

Roberto Mancini basked in the emotion of a "beautiful evening" as Italy began Euro 2020 with a commanding 3-0 win over Turkey, but he is not getting carried away after one match.

Against a sorry Turkey side, Italy were a cut above on Friday in Rome's Stadio Olimpico, where the Azzurri are unbeaten in nine matches at major tournaments.

A frustratingly unambitious Turkey were finally breached early in the second half when Domenico Berardi smashed a cross in off Merih Demiral and, as their opponents' cumulative expected goals (xG) value of 0.6 suggests, Italy need not have scored again.

But they did for good measure, Ciro Immobile pouncing on a rebound to net for the third successive game for his country, before then teeing up the excellent Lorenzo Insigne for a lovely finish.

It was the first time in European Championship history that Italy have scored three times in a single match, with the win and overall manner of it seeing Mancini's men make a real statement about their chances over the next month.

It had been difficult to truly gauge their seemingly impressive qualifying campaign because most of their goals came against massively inferior opposition. This victory was rather more conclusive, though Mancini was not getting carried away at full-time.

Asked whether this was just the first step towards the final at Wembley on July 11, Mancini told Rai Sport: "There are still six more steps. It was a beautiful evening, I hope there are many others like this.

"I was hoping for a start like this, we are pleased to have played well and entertained the fans. I hope the Italians had a good evening. We played well, we never gave up. In short it was an excellent match.

"We are aware that we are a good team. We beat Turkey, who are definitely not pushovers. We know we can still improve, even with young players who don't yet have European Championship experience."

The first half was frustrating for Italy, their 14 shots – compared to Turkey's zero – yielding little, while their opponents sat back and hoped to absorb pressure.

Italy would have expected such an approach from Turkey to a degree, given they relied on counter-attacks 26 per cent more than the average in qualifying, according to Stats Perform's Playing Styles model.

But ultimately Italy got the job done and Mancini applauded his men for not becoming disheartened, instead persisting as they looked to pull Turkey to and fro with quick distribution.

"We had a good match, even in the first half when we couldn't find the goal, we were very good," Mancini continued. "The match was not easy, it was the debut and Turkey is an excellent team.

"We were decisive when we moved the ball quickly and came to the opposite side, freeing the man.

"It was important to start well, it was a satisfaction for all of us, for the present public and for all Italians."

Ciro Immobile thanked his mother for giving him his sense of goal after helping Italy to launch their Euro 2020 campaign with a resounding 3-0 win over Turkey in Rome.

A dogged, if unambitious, approach from Senol Gunes' side ensured it was 0-0 at the interval at the Stadio Olimpico, but the breakthrough came eight minutes into the second half when Merih Demiral turned Domenico Berardi's powerful cross into his own net.

Lazio striker Immobile was then on hand to convert the rebound from Leonardo Spinazzola's shot – his third consecutive scoring appearance for the Azzurri but a first goal in the finals of a major tournament.

"I want to thank my mother for giving me the sense for being in the right place in the right moment," the 31-year-old said, as quoted by UEFA.com.

Roberto Mancini's side had 63.4 per cent possession and the eventual shot count came in at 24-3, with Immobile's six attempts meaning he had double the amount the entire Turkey team managed over the course of the 90 minutes.

Immobile felt being under pressure for such long periods took a toll on Italy's opponents.

"We showed patience in the first half. Turkey are a strong side and caused problems for many top teams," he said.

"We tried to tire them out, moving the ball left and right and trying to spread them. Unfortunately, we regularly struggled to break their wall.

"Turkey were more tired after the break. After the goal they had to open up some space, so that’s when our quality emerged."

Lorenzo Insigne completed the scoring with a crisp finish – teed up by Immobile – and produced many of those moments of quality.

The Napoli forward had five shots, with two on target and two blocked, and created three chances for team-mates. Only fellow wide attacker Domenico Berardi (five) made more key passes.

"We made a slow start but we managed to recover and score three goals in the second half," Insigne said.

"Mancini told us to remain calm and focused on the game – that’s what we did and, finally, we achieved our goal.

"Our strength is the group; the coach has created a great group in which there are no starters and bench players and each one of us is always ready to sacrifice for our team-mates.

"Winning is the most important thing – if I score, even better. It was a great night."

Italy are off to a flyer at Euro 2020 and added weight to the theory they are serious trophy contenders with Friday's 3-0 win over Turkey.

Merih Demiral's own goal was followed by strikes from Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne, and the clean sheet means Italy have now not conceded for 875 minutes.

Using Opta data, we take a look at what was the biggest win achieved in any opening match in the history of the European Championship.

Turkey 0-3 Italy: Three and easy for Azzurri

Italy have become used to starting tournaments well – although first they have to qualify, and it stung when they missed out on the 2018 World Cup. They beat England in their 2014 World Cup opener, defeated Belgium at Euro 2016, and showed their early-doors mettle again here.

This 3-0 win gave them the biggest margin of victory in an opening match at a European Championship, but perhaps the hefty victory should not have come as a surprise given Turkey are notoriously slow starters. They have lost their opening match at all seven of their appearances at major tournaments (World Cup and European Championship) – the only nation to play at more than three such tournaments and never avoid defeat first up.

What does it tell us about this reborn Italy? Well, their unbeaten run now stands at 28 games (W23 D5), and the Azzurri have only once enjoyed a longer run, going 30 without defeat between November 1935 and July 1939. Coach Roberto Mancini has worked some kind of wizardry since taking the helm in 2018, and they have now not conceded in their past 875 minutes of football, keeping a clean sheet in nine successive games, their best streak since 10 in a row between November 1989 and June 1990 – the month they headed into Italia 90.

Demiral has an unwanted place in history, scoring the first own-goal opener to a European Championship tournament, and it should have come as no shock to see Immobile get among the goals, given that since joining Lazio in 2016, the striker has scored 92 goals in 118 appearances at the Stadio Olimpico for club and country.

Ultimately, it was a night to savour for Giorgio Chiellini, as the captain became the oldest outfield player to start a match for Italy at a major tournament. At 36 years and 301 days, he went ahead of Fabio Cannavaro's previous record of 36 years and 284 days, set against Slovakia at the 2010 World Cup.

Chiellini was Cannavaro's centre-back partner on that day 11 years ago, a low point for Italy when a 3-2 defeat saw them knocked out of the tournament.

With Italy away to a strong start here, Chiellini will want to substantially extend his newly inherited record over the weeks ahead.

It was hard to think of a way to top the spine-tingling gravitas of Andrea Bocelli performing Nessun Dorma on a balmy Rome evening.

The organisers of Euro 2020 clearly felt it best not to try not to compete, so sent the matchball for Italy's 3-0 win over Turkey out to the Stadio Olimpico pitch via a remote-control car.

The restricted 16,000-crowd cheered the presence of UEFA's questionable accessory – the sort of thing a "fun" uncle might stick under the tree at Christmas – but then they gave full-throated appreciation to everything. After a 12-month delay and unimaginable heartache in the wider world, Euro 2020 was here.

Especially during those dark early months of the coronavirus pandemic when sport stopped, we all took solace in nostalgia and re-runs of great deeds from the past. The 25th anniversary of Euro 96 resonates particularly loudly in England as Gareth Southgate's Three Lions prepare to start their campaign against Croatia on Sunday.

In Italy, and also in the wider world's romantic view of Italian football, Italia 90 still frames an era. Yes, they reached the 1994 World Cup final and won their fourth world title in 2006, but for supporters of a certain generation, the Azzurri are indelibly linked to that fondly remembered World Cup on home soil.

Italy won all five of their games at the Stadio Olimpico in the 1990 World Cup before suffering semi-final heartbreak against Argentina on Diego Maradona's Stadio San Paolo stomping ground in Naples.

This was the beginning of a period when the Italian game reigned supreme. Arrigo Sacchi's great Milan side were in their pomp and the cream of global talent made for the glamour and riches of Serie A.

Mancini's revolution

It is safe to say Roberto Mancini inherited a fairly different situation in 2018. Italy had failed to qualify for Russia 2018. Far from ruling the world, this was simply the end of the world for a proud footballing nation.

In the former Inter and Manchester City boss, though, they happened upon the ideal figure to lead a redemption tale. A lavishly gifted forward during his playing days at Sampdoria and Lazio, Mancini's international career was one of frustration and fallouts. He spent most of Italia 90 as an unused substitute, having had the misfortune of sharing an era with the masterful Roberto Baggio.

Although such echoes of the past will always sound when Italy play on the biggest stages, Mancini has propelled a team injected with youthful exuberance into the modern era, playing high-tempo, high-pressing football – all slickness and angles in possession.

They had to look for the most acute pockets during a first half of one-way traffic against a packed defence. Turkey, tipped by many as dark horses before the tournament, turned up as the stable doors.

 

By the interval it remained bolted, despite Italy managing 14 shots to their opponents' zero. Turkey striker Burak Yilmaz, the talismanic hero of Lille's Ligue 1 title success was reduced to seven touches in the opening 45 minutes and a comedic dive that brought something approaching a look of pity from Giorgio Chiellini.

Great centre-backs of previous Italian vintages have been the foundation stone, but Mancini's Azzurri are built on cute midfielders who treasure the ball. Jorginho (76 of 81 passes completed) was at his metronomic best as Nicolo Barella (56 passes in the Turkey half second only to Jorginho's 59) and Manuel Locatelli probed for openings.

They combined to establish a relentless supply line to Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne. Either side of striker Ciro Immobile, the two wide attackers chipped away at the red wall until it came crashing down just before the hour when fatigue took hold of Senol Gunes' painfully unambitious side – perhaps not the last time we will see such an approach in a tournament that rewards third-place finishers in the group stage.

Azzurri winging it

Left-back Umut Meras took a tired stumble when Berardi – whose five chances created were more than any other Italy player – ran at him again in the 53rd minute. The Sassuolo winger's uncompromising thump across the goalmouth thudded into Merih Demiral and in. OWNGOLAZO! It almost looked as silly as a ball on a remote-control car.

Immobile was the intended recipient of Berardi's work but Lazio's master poacher was not about to be denied in his house, snaffling the rebound from Leonardo Spinazzola's shot to score in a third consecutive Italy appearance. His first goal in a major tournament was one very much out of the Salvatore Schillaci handbook.

 

Of course, it would not be a vintage Italy performance without the number 10 coming to the party. Insigne collected Immobile's pass after a poor clearance from bedraggled Turkey goalkeeper Ugurcan Cakir to find a crisp finish and the goal his shimmering efforts deserved.

If a pre-match serenade from Bocelli laid it on thick, how about a last-ditch, fist-pumping tackle from an Italy centre-back? Naturally, Chiellini found one of those to thwart Yilmaz in stoppage time, revelling in his work and another clean sheet earned.

But Mancini's Azzurri do not need to linger on a celebrated past. This was an authoritative statement from a team for the here and now.

Italy made a commanding return to major tournament football as they opened Euro 2020 with a comfortable 3-0 win over Turkey at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Friday.

The Azzurri failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup but have since rebuilt under Roberto Mancini, who appears to have transformed them into a credible force that dealt with one of the competition's supposed dark horses with relative ease.

Not that it was all plain sailing, however. Andrea Bocelli's pre-match rendition of 'Nessun Dorma' – or 'let no one sleep' in English – was seemingly not heeded amid a dour first half, though one flashpoint just before the interval saw Italy denied a penalty.

Mancini's side eventually opened the scoring soon after half-time as Juventus defender Merih Demiral scored an own goal and, given the lack of threat posed by Turkey, subsequent strikes from Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne were probably not even necessary.

Turkey relied on counter-attacks 26 per cent more than the average in qualifying, according to Stats Perform's Playing Styles model, and their deep set-up contributed to a cagey opening.

But Italy started to probe with greater intent and saw Insigne shoot just after a one-two with Immobile in the 17th minute, before Giorgio Chiellini – now the oldest outfielder to ever start a major tournament game for the Azzurri – drew a stunning save from Ugurcan Cakir with a powerful header.

Turkey were then arguably fortunate not to concede a penalty just before half-time, VAR deeming there to be no clear error when Zeki Celik handled Leonardo Spinazzola's cross.

Although Cengiz Under was introduced at the break, Turkey's gameplan showed no change and Italy deservedly made the breakthrough in the 53rd minute as Domenico Berardi left Umut Meras on his backside and smashed the ball across goal, with Demiral diverting it into his own net.

Cakir could not hold on to Spinazzola's shot and Immobile was on hand to coolly tap in the rebound to make in 2-0 just past the hour.

And Insigne wrapped things up 11 minutes from time, curling home after being teed up by Immobile as the Azzurri netted three times in a single game for the first time in European Championship finals history.

Kevin De Bruyne is progressing well in his injury recovery despite being ruled out of Belgium's Euro 2020 opener against Russia in St Petersburg.

Manchester City playmaker De Bruyne suffered fractures to his nose and orbital bone during last month's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.

The sight of the 29-year-old being groggily helped from the field in Porto initially placed doubts over his participation at Euro 2020, but he has joined up with Roberto Martinez's squad.

Although Saturday's Group B opener comes too soon for De Bruyne, Martinez suggested he could feature before the end of the round robin stage, with the recently crowned PFA Footballer of the Year set to resume training alongside his team-mates when they return from their assignment at Krestovsky Stadium.

"It was always a medical direction. Kevin had to go through a few stages and he has been through those," the Belgium head coach explained at a pre-match news conference on Friday.

"Yesterday he had a very positive day on the grass but it wasn't with the group.

"The next two days will be really important to get him back into moving freely and starting to get the exercise that is needed before he can come to the group."

Another experienced member of Martinez's squad, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel, is closing in on a return to action.

Witsel has not played competitive football since suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in January but was still handed a place in the Red Devils' 26-man squad.

Like De Bruyne, he has not travelled to St Petersburg.

"The situation with Axel is very clear. He is part of the 26. His work in the past few days has been totally with the group and has been really satisfactory," Martinez said.

"Then we're going to take every day to try to add to that normality of Axel with the group. The decision not to travel to St Petersburg was to get another two days of work and then he will join the group again when we come back.

"From that point I don't expect Axel to miss a lot more."

He added: "Both players are following an individual programme. We're very happy with the progress in the last two days.

"Neither could join for tomorrow's game but both players are progressing really well and they're going to be with the group as soon as we come back."

Belgium will be keen to call upon De Bruyne's creative expertise as soon as possible.

Across 25 Premier League games in 2020-21, he delivered 12 assists at a rate of one every 167 – the most prolific return of any players to record three assists or more in England's top flight.

Roberto Martinez believes Belgium's players can handle the expectations of a potentially legacy-defining tournament as they prepare to open their Euro 2020 campaign against Russia in St Petersburg.

The Red Devils sit atop FIFA's world rankings, a position to which a lavishly gifted squad have become accustomed over the recent past.

However, an improvement upon their third-placed finish at the 2018 World Cup will be required to make good on their incredible promise.

Until that run under Martinez, quarter-final exits at Brazil 2014 and Euro 2016 went down as disappointments for the generation of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, the latter of whom will sit out the Group A opener alongside Axel Witsel.

"I'm sure that the last three years, when the team reaches the level of continuity and consistency that it's showed in the world rankings there is more expectation," Martinez told a pre-match news conference. "There are more neutral fans who follow the team.

"But that doesn't change anything for us. You grow from expectation within the team. The difficulty is the team we have in front of us. I don't think this team will suffer because of expectation."

Krestovsky Stadium was the scene of Belgium's narrow World Cup semi-final loss to France and their win over England in the third-place match three years ago.

A partisan crowd means Martinez expects a different feel this time around.

"There are no secrets between the two teams. We know Russia really well, as they know us really well," he added.

"We are in a magnificent stadium where there will be over 30,000 Russia fans. That's an element we have to overcome in this game."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium – Romelu Lukaku

Lukaku re-established his reputation as one of the premier strikers in world football by firing Inter to Serie A glory this season. His 35 goal involvements (24 goals, 11 assists) were more than any other player managed in Italy's top-flight and he is very much in the Golden Boot conversation. Lukaku's capacity to create as well as score also bodes well in the absence of De Bruyne, as the Manchester City playmaker continues his recovery from facial injuries sustained during the Champions League final.

 

Russia – Artem Dzyuba

Russia have a powerhouse striker of their own in cult hero Dzyuba. An outspoken character, he was banished from international duty for a year before returning with three goals in a run to the World Cup quarter-finals on home soil in 2018.

The surfacing of an explicit video featuring Dzyuba threatened to derail him once again earlier this season, but he heads into Euro 2020 as captain of his country and their main threat after 20 league goals for Zenit – the second successive campaign he has finished as top scorer in the Russian Premier League. Only England's Harry Kane (17) was directly involved in more goals during qualification than Dzyuba (14 – nine goals, five assists).

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Belgium were one of only two teams – alongside Italy – to win all of their games in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign (10/10). They also scored more goals than any other team (40) while setting the joint-best defensive record of three goals conceded.

- No player delivered more assists than Eden Hazard in the Euro 2020 qualifiers, with all seven of those coming from open play. He was also the joint-top assist provider at Euro 2016 (4, level with Aaron Ramsey).

- Russia are winless in their last five matches at the European Championship (D2 L3), since a 4-1 win against Czech Republic in June 2012.

- Thibaut Courtois conceded an average of 0.74 goals per game in LaLiga in 2020-21 (28 in 38 appearances), the lowest ratio for a Real Madrid goalkeeper playing every match of the same top-flight season since Opta began collecting this data in 2005-06.

- Aleksandr Golovin was directly involved in 14 goals in 21 games in Ligue 1 in 2020-21 (five goals, nine assists). Only Andrey Arshavin (six goals, 11 assists with Arsenal in 2010-11) has had more goal involvements among Russian players in the top-five European leagues over the past 15 seasons. Monaco won 41 per cent of their league games without Golovin on the pitch this season, winning 81 per cent when he was involved.

Danish footballers are frequently reminded of their country's Euro 1992 success, one of the competition's most-enduring underdog tales, meaning their failures can attract greater scrutiny.

Ever since their triumph some 29 years ago, Denmark have only reached the quarter-finals once in 2004, while their form at major tournaments in general has often been underwhelming.

For example, they head into Euro 2020 having not scored two goals in any of their previous 22 games in the Euros or World Cup, the last such occasion being a 4-1 win over Nigeria in 1998.

But there is arguably a greater sense of optimism for Denmark than they have had in a generation, with their squad an attractive blend of solidity and individual quality, while all three of their Group B matches will be played on home soil in Copenhagen.

"It's something completely unique and something I'll probably never experience again," goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel – whose father Peter was in the 1992 team – said of Denmark's role as one of the host nations.

"I am really looking forward to it. But on the other hand, we must also keep a cool head and not get swept up in the emotions and the football fever that is happening in Denmark. We have to go in and do our job."

On Saturday they go up against a Finland side competing at their first major tournament.

The newcomers will have to pay particular mind to Christian Eriksen, who has had a hand in 39 per cent (30 – 23 goals, seven assists – out of 70) of Denmark's competitive goals since the start of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Denmark – Jonas Wind

So much of the creative and scoring burden has been on Eriksen in recent years, with Denmark struggling to produce the type of centre-forward who can find the net on a reliable basis, but the winds of change may finally be here. Jonas Wind has just enjoyed something of a breakout season for Copenhagen, scoring 15 goals and getting eight assists (six in open play) in the Superligaen. His impressive physique coupled with technical efficiency make him an effective link-up player but he's also capable of finding the net.

 

Finland – Teemu Pukki

While Lukas Hradecky looks likely to have a busy tournament between the posts, if Finland are to have any hope of an unlikely trip into the knockout phase, they will likely need a goal or two. Norwich City's Pukki is, perhaps rather obviously, their biggest threat in this regard having netted eight goals more (10 in total, a national record) than any other Finn in qualifying. Although his electric start in the 2019-20 Premier League season fizzled out, his haul of 11 goals was respectable for someone in a relegated team and he followed that up with 26 this term in the Championship.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Finland became the first European team to qualify for a major tournament for the first time (World Cup/European Championship) since Albania and Iceland at Euro 2016. The former were knocked out in the group stages whilst the latter reached the quarter-final.

- Finland won 18 points from their 10 Euro 2020 qualification matches; this is their best points return from a single qualification campaign since winning 18 points from 10 games during qualification for the 2010 World Cup. They finished third in their group on that occasion and failed to qualify.

- Denmark did not lose a single game in their last major tournament (W1 D3 at World Cup 2018) but were knocked out in the round of 16 by Croatia on penalties (1-1 a.e.t., 2-3 penalties).

- This is the first meeting between Denmark and Finland at a major tournament (World Cup/European Championship). Their last encounter dates back to a 2-1 friendly win for the Danes in November 2011.

- While Finland are taking part in their first ever major tournament (World Cup/European Championship), this is Denmark's ninth European Championship appearance and their first since 2012. They won the tournament in 1992, when they only qualified after Yugoslavia were expelled as a result of war in the Balkans.

Scotland will join England in taking the knee when the great rivals meet at Euro 2020, as head coach Steve Clarke vowed to fight racism and tackle "ignorance".

England's players have been going down on one knee before games as a protest against racism, while Scotland have since March stood together as a group to make their own united statement.

They intend to carry on in that way but will make an exception for the England game at Wembley on June 18, having been disappointed by reactions to their own method of facing down discrimination.

A frustrated Clarke said that "some individuals and groups have sought to politicise or misrepresent the Scotland national team position".

He reiterated his squad's view that "the purpose of taking the knee ... has been diluted and undermined by the continuation of abuse towards players", but Clarke does not want Scotland's actions to be interpreted as anything but being vigorously opposed to discrimination.

The one-off policy shift is a statement of Scotland's solidarity with their English counterparts, who have faced booing from supporters of the national team after taking the knee.

"In light of divisive and inaccurate comments being perpetuated by individuals and groups, whose views we denounce in the strongest terms, we have reflected today as a group," Clarke said.

"We remain committed to our principles of taking a stand but we must also be unequivocal in condemning the opportunistic false narrative being presented by some.

"We have therefore agreed that we will show solidarity with our counterparts in England, many of whom are team-mates of our own players, and who have found themselves on the receiving end of abuse from fans in recent international matches.

"We will continue to take a stand – together, as one – for our matches at Hampden Park. For our match at Wembley, we will stand against racism and kneel against ignorance."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon backed the move, writing on Twitter: "Good decision, Scotland – well done!"

Scotland begin their Euro 2020 campaign – their first major finals since the 1998 World Cup – with a Hampden clash against the Czech Republic on Monday.

Andy Robertson, the Scotland captain and Liverpool left-back, backed the decision to take the knee before the highly anticipated Wembley game.

Robertson said: "Our stance is that everyone, players, fans, teams, clubs, federations, governing bodies and governments must do more. Meaningful action is needed if meaningful change is to occur.

"But it is also clear, given the events around the England national team, taking the knee in this tournament matters as a symbol of solidarity.

"For this reason, we have collectively decided to again take the knee as a team for the fixture against England at Wembley Stadium.

"The Scotland team stands against racism but we will kneel against ignorance and in solidarity on June 18th."

Scotland legend Ally McCoist has been delighted by Scott McTominay's recent emergence as a key man for both club and country.

The 24-year-old featured in 49 games across all competitions for Manchester United last term as they finished second in the Premier League and reached the Europa League final.

He also helped his country secure their first major tournament appearance since the 1998 World Cup with a play-off victory over Serbia that ensured they will be at this year's European Championship.

It is a development that has somewhat surprised McCoist, who scored 19 times for Scotland across a 61-cap international career.

Speaking to Stats Perform on behalf of official UEFA Euro 2020 partner Heineken ahead of the action getting under way, he said: "I have been absolutely delighted and pleasantly surprised at the massive improvement in Scott McTominay. 

"I thought he was the best player on the park in the Europa final, which was a poor final I have to say. I knew he was capable of playing well, but his level of consistency and performance level for United and indeed Scotland has pleasantly surprised me. 

"I don't want say it in [a way that] is not respectful to Scott McTominay, it's quite the opposite. I've been absolutely delighted with the improvements he has made as a player both at club level and international level. 

"It says as much about Scott McTominay that there's every chance we play him in a position that he doesn't play with Manchester United, probably on the right of a three defensively. It's probably a bit of a surprise but a really pleasant one."

McTominay is not the only member of Scotland's squad who has endured a gruelling season, with captain Andy Robertson having clocked up 50 games for Liverpool.

But McCoist has no concerns about burnout – he instead believes that players will be invigorated by their country's rare appearance at a major tournament.

He continued: "It wouldn't be a concern for me. We can't have it both ways. One of the problems in recent years and one of the reasons we haven't qualified for major tournaments is that we haven't had top players playing at the top level. 

"We've now got top players playing at the top level; Andy Robertson is one of them, [Kieran] Tierney, McTominay, [John] McGinn, the two lads at Southampton [Stuart Armstrong and Che Adams].

"I don't think it's rocket science, we've now got better players playing at a better level and that's one of the reasons we've qualified for the Euros.

"With Andy, obviously it's the Scottish lads' dream to play at a major championship, we haven't done it for 23 years. 

"So boys like that, of course they've had a lot of football, I accept and appreciate that, but they've had a little bit of a break, they're now at their training camps, they've [had] a couple of friendlies – I think they'll be absolutely raring to go. 

"Their enthusiasm and adrenaline will have them so fired up, I think we'll be absolutely fine."

Scotland have been drawn to face three teams all placed higher than them (44) in the FIFA world rankings in England (four), Croatia (14) and the Czech Republic (40).

But with four of the six teams who place third in their groups also going through to the knockout stages, McCoist is confident that Steve Clarke's side can progress.

He added: "I think the great thing from our point of view is the fact that there's a low expectancy level from outside. 

"We obviously want to do well and we'll do as well as we can but we're pretty realistic about it. You look at the group and we're probably outsiders but I honestly believe we can win our first game. 

"England, for example, have just got a far better team and far better squad than us – that's not to say we can't win the game, but they've got one of the most talented squads in the tournament. 

"But I think on our day we can beat the Czech Republic and if we can manage to do that then I think with four teams qualifying from the section in third place, I don't see any reason why we couldn't qualify from the group. I think that's got to be our target, it really has. 

"Is it achievable? Yes it is. It'll be very, very difficult because England, Croatia and the Czech Republic are all top sides, but I think it's achievable."

As part of Heineken's global 'Finally Together' campaign which recognises the long-awaited reunion with fans and the rivalries that go alongside, McCoist stitched up England rival and fellow pundit Jermaine Jenas with the ultimate friendly wind-up – posing in a tailor-made suit emblazoned with the Saltire across the back.

He said: "Jermaine is a dapper fellow who can strike a pose even better than he could a football. 

"We just knew he wouldn't be able to resist the offer of tailor-made suit and a photoshoot.

"Everyone present could see what was on his back apart from him and I took great pleasure in getting him to model it for the camera. 

"Jermaine's face was an absolute picture when he realised he'd been stitched up. This is a victory for the Scots and I'll raise my glass for another one at Wembley!"

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