Belgium face holders Portugal in a mouthwatering Euro 2020 last-16 tie on Sunday and their star attacking midfielder is in ominous form.

Kevin De Bruyne began the Red Devils' group campaign on the sidelines as he recovered from facial injuries sustained during Manchester City's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.

“I don't feel anything on the left side, like after a visit to the dentist," he explained in a typically abrupt fashion.

But since being introduced as a half-time substitute with Belgium 1-0 down to Denmark in Copenhagen, the 29-year-old has unquestionably made his presence felt.

A brilliant assist and thumping winning goal saw the playmaker inspire a 2-1 win almost singlehandedly.

Belgium made it three wins from three thanks to a routine 2-0 triumph over Finland in their final Group B match, with De Bruyne laying on Romelu Lukaku's third goal of the tournament.

Despite only playing 134 minutes at Euro 2020, he has created five chances with an expected assists (xA) value of 1.18.

 

Bruno benched as holders struggle to find their feet

If this is a case of De Bruyne emphatically bringing his Premier League form onto the international stage, the same cannot yet be said of Bruno Fernandes.

Since his Manchester United debut on February 1 last year, Fernandes' 19 assists are the most supplied by any player in England's top fight. De Bruyne, with 17 assists having played 2,904 minutes to the Portugal international's 4,297, is the only other player to have recorded more than 15 over the same period.

The Manchester maestros also close out the top two in terms of chances created (De Bruyne 131, Fernandes 125), big chances created (De Bruyne 31, Fernandes 23) and chances created from open play (99 apiece) in this time.

 

Fernandes was in the starting line-up for Portugal's opener when they left it late to beat Hungary 3-0 in Group F, before being unable to avert a chastening 4-2 loss to Germany in Munich.

The former Sporting CP favourite was one of the victims as Fernando Santos shuffled his pack in response, only coming on as a late substitute in the 2-2 draw against France – his most notable contribution coming when he escaped punishment for an untidy challenge on Kingsley Coman in his own penalty area.

 

KDB running free

De Bruyne and Fernandes' contrasting contributions at Euro 2020 so far can by partly explained by the amount of freedom they are granted by their respective international bosses to recreate their club heroics.

"Kevin will have an influential role, the playmaker, linking possession," Martinez said a couple of days out from the showdown in Seville, with De Bruyne once again poised to leave a stamp on the game irrespective of starting position.

He replaced Dries Mertens against Denmark, nominally roving in the front three, before reverting to a central midfield position alongside Axel Witsel for a man-of-the-match showing versus Finland.

For City, the majority of De Bruyne's Premier League touches last season came in the middle third of the opposition half of the field, with 15.27 per cent in the middle of the left flank.

 

Within the far smaller sample size of his Belgium minutes at Euro 2020, the story is similar enough. Although he does not hit double-digit percentages across the middle attacking third as he does for City, 15.38 per cent of De Bruyne's Red Devils touches are in that favoured position - coming in from the left and able to see the full picture unfolding.

Fernandes' made 14.08 per cent of his United touches in the same area in 2020-21, with a comparable spread across the attacking midfield zones to De Bruyne.

By contrast, for Portugal at Euro 2020, there has been a huge concentration of Fernandes' touches on the right flank - 22.68 per on the right of the middle third of the opposition half, compared to just 4.12 per cent where he does the biggest chunk of his United work.

This suggests far less license to express himself than De Bruyne enjoys under Martinez and the on-field relationship each man has with their team's superstar goalscorer is somewhat wrapped up in all this.

 

KDB and Rom in sync, Bruno struggling to feed Ronaldo

The outcome of Sunday's match could have a huge bearing on the winner of the Golden Boot, although Cristiano Ronaldo's group-stage haul of five means he might have already done enough.

Lukaku is building on a fabulous couple of seasons at Inter and has three for Belgium so far, with the centre-forward seeming to come alive whenever De Bruyne is in close proximity.

A marginal offside call had already thwarted the De Bruyne-Lukaku link before Belgium's number seven and number nine combined to complete the scoring against Finland.

It is not a one-way relationship, either, with Lukaku holding up play expertly for De Bruyne to lay Thomas Meunier's equaliser on a plate in the Denmark match.

 

Of De Bruyne and Lukaku's seven combinations at Euro 2020 – when one of them has passed to the other – six have ended in the opposition penalty area, underling their considerable threat in tandem.

Fernandes and Ronaldo have passed to one another 15 times, but only two of these exchanges have ended in the area and neither yielded a goal.

Their combinations have also been uneven. Fernandes came on in the 72nd minute against France and he and Ronaldo each passed to the other once. They shared three in total despite being on the pitch for 89 minutes together versus Hungary.

Perhaps this speaks of the respective status of the two playmakers with their countries. Fernandes, 26, is in Ronaldo's shadow like the rest of his international team-mates, meaning the cajoling leader on show at Old Trafford is unlikely to be seen to the same extent. Much like his overall presence, his on-field contributions have shrunk.

 

De Bruyne is second to no one in the Belgium set-up, the shining light of a celebrated generation alongside Lukaku and Eden Hazard.

It means that, while they might compete as men of equal status in the next Manchester derby, De Bruyne will be the heartbeat of Belgium's bid for a quarter-final spot as Fernandes seeks to muscle in and make his own talents felt from the margins.

Cristiano Ronaldo will be the man in the spotlight on Sunday, but Roberto Martinez says Belgium cannot afford to focus only on the Portugal star. 

Ronaldo tied Ali Daei's record of 109 international goals with a pair of penalties against France to send Portugal into the knockout stage of the European Championship. 

Still, Martinez insists Ronaldo will get no special attention in their last-16 clash. 

"When you put a plan against a specific player, you can be hurt by other players," the Belgium head coach told a news conference. "The way that Portugal plays, they’ve got a lot of threat, they’ve got a lot of pace in behind.

"Of course Cristiano Ronaldo seems to be the player that gets the right moment, the right pass and the right chance, and you have to be always aware, but you have to defend the 10 outfield players of Portugal in the same measure.

"We need to be compact, we need to be really solid, and we need to defend as a team.

"Obviously we always think about the opposition and that’s always the case, you need to have that information, but I think we’ve got real good momentum and that’s where we’re concentrating."

Belgium conceded only one goal across their three wins in the group stage, but their prime reason for optimism may rest in Kevin De Bruyne's successful return. 

After his swift recovery from facial fractures suffered in the Champions League final, the Manchester City star played nearly the entire game against Denmark after scoring in his return to action as a half-time substitute against Denmark. 

"Kevin, it’s been great to be able to see him 45 minutes and then almost the 90 minutes, so I feel that he is in the perfect physical condition to go into this game," Martinez said. 

"Kevin will have the normal role, an influential role. He’s not a player that needs to play in a certain position. We need to give him that opportunity to be the play-maker, to be able to link up to that possession that we have.

"We will have to be patient against a really good, resolute, and well-defensive-structured Portugal team, but I think we’re going to see ourselves doing what we always do."

Joao Moutinho urged his Portugal team-mates not to go overboard trying to stop Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne in their Euro 2020 last-16 tie on Sunday.

De Bruyne has lit up Belgium's last two performances having missed their opening game in Group B match against Russia with the facial injury he picked up in the Champions League final.

A brilliant assist and winning goal saw the Manchester City playmaker inspire Roberto Martinez's side to a 2-1 win over Denmark having come off the bench at half-time.

Belgium made it three consecutive wins after a 2-0 victory over Finland with De Bruyne laying on Romelu Lukaku's third goal of the tournament.

De Bruyne has only played 134 minutes at Euro 2020 and has created five chances with an expected assists (xA) value of 1.18.

Since (and including) the 2014 World Cup, De Bruyne has created 71 chances in major tournaments (Euros and World Cup), more than any other European player in that time.

Moutinho will be one of those charged with stifling De Bruyne's influence, but warned about singling out the player for too much attention.

"Kevin is very competent, we have to be careful but not just focus on one player," Portugal midfielder Moutinho told a media conference.

 

"If he has space to play it's even more dangerous. But if all of them have space, they will play their game calmly and that will make our job difficult. 

"That would set the others free and that would be even worse. As a team we will try to minimise their strengths and put ours into practice, not only focus on De Bruyne.

"If the manager thinks I'm the player with the characteristics to face Belgium, I'll do that. Try to impose my experience and the pace of the game that interests us the most. 

"I'm available to give my best, that's what we all want to do, for the team to achieve its goals."

Portugal head coach Fernando Santos has dubbed the match a "final" and acknowledged the defending champions must improve on their displays in the group stage.

"We know that we are going to have a competent opponent. I believe, I hope and I am convinced that we will be more competent," he said.

"To reach the final, this is the first final. What we have to do is not to give space. The team that defends better, knows how to manage the ball better and create opportunities, will win the game."

All eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo again on Sunday as he looks to become the outright world-record holder for international goals, though being out of the focus will do Portugal's opponents Belgium no harm.

The Juventus star tied Ali Daei's long-standing record of 109 goals with a pair of penalties in Portugal's thrilling 2-2 draw with France, the result ensuring the Selecao reached the knockout phase.

One more will put Ronaldo out in front, while he may also have designs on chasing down Michel Platini's record for the most goals scored in a single European Championship (nine in Euro 84).

But despite Ronaldo's five goals thus far, it has been by no means plain sailing for Portugal, whose four points was the poorest group-stage haul for a defending European champion since Greece in 2008 (zero).

 

Fernando Santos' men arguably could not have picked a stronger opponent to face next as they prepare to tussle with Belgium in Seville on Sunday, and while Portugal put their faith in Ronaldo, former Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku is a similarly talismanic figure for Roberto Martinez.

"Going to Inter was the perfect move, at the perfect time, with a perfect coach, with a perfect dream of winning the Serie A title," Martinez told ESPN.

"I think that has developed Lukaku to a level that is, for me, the best in his career. For me – and you know I am biased – he is the best striker in the world."

Since the 2018 World Cup concluded, Lukaku has 23 goals in 21 games across all competitions for Belgium and is just one shy of equalling his best return at a major tournament (four, 2018 World Cup).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne

As well as enthusing about Lukaku, Belgium coach Martinez has also declared midfielder De Bruyne to be the best in the world in his position – and few would disagree with that assertion. Although he has only played 134 minutes at Euro 2020, De Bruyne has had a hand in three of Belgium's seven goals (one goal, two assists). Add to that the fact his 71 chances created in major tournaments since the start of the 2014 World Cup is bettered by no European player, then perhaps it is Belgium who hold the trump card with De Bruyne, rather than Portugal with Ronaldo.

 

Portugal – Renato Sanches

Lille midfielder Sanches was brought into the team for the dropped Bruno Fernandes against France, and given how effective he was then, he will surely keep his place. Portugal really benefited from his well-rounded excellence: he made more ball recoveries than any other player on the pitch (eight), his three tackles was bettered by only Nelson Semedo among Portugal players and he was also key to their build-up play – his 38 passes in the opposing half was 11 more than any of his team-mates.

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Ronaldo is now the top-scoring European player at major tournaments (World Cup and Euros), with his double against France moving him beyond Miroslav Klose (19) to 21 goals. Indeed, that was Ronaldo's second brace of Euro 2020 already – no player has ever registered three in a single tournament at the European Championship.

- Belgium's victory over Finland last time out marked their ninth win at the World Cup and Euros combined under Martinez, with the Spaniard now holding the outright managerial record for major tournament wins with the Red Devils.

- Portugal have conceded six goals in three games at Euro 2020, already one more than they did at Euro 2016 when they went on to lift the trophy (five goals conceded in seven games). The last time Portugal conceded two or more goals in three consecutive games was in February 2013 under Paulo Bento. They shipped four to Germany followed by two to France in their last two games.

- Belgium have reached the knockout stages in each of their last five appearances at a major tournament (Euros and World Cup), progressing to the semi-final in their previous one at the 2018 World Cup. Their defeat to eventual winners France in 2018 is the only one of their last 10 games at major tournaments that they have failed to win (W9).

- Belgium have only failed to score in two of their previous 58 games under Martínez, averaging exactly three goals per game in this stretch of fixtures (174 in total). The two games where they have been shut out came in the 2018 World Cup semi-final against France (losing 1-0) and in their most recent meeting with Portugal, a 0-0 draw in June 2018.

Kevin De Bruyne has no fear over any lasting impact of the facial injury he sustained ahead of Euro 2020 after making his first appearance of the tournament for Belgium.

Manchester City star De Bruyne suffered a fractured nose and left orbital in a challenge with Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger during the Champions League final last month.

The injury did not prevent him from featuring in Roberto Martinez's Belgium squad, with the 29-year-old undergoing what the Red Devils coach described as a "small intervention" – rather than full surgery – to help protect the affected area and ensure De Bruyne did not have to wear a mask when he returned to action.

After missing Belgium's first Group B game, a 3-0 win over Russia, De Bruyne came off the bench to inspire Martinez's team to a 2-1 comeback win over Denmark on Thursday, teeing up Thorgan Hazard's equaliser before scoring a stunning winner.

With Belgium's progression from Group B secured, they face Finland in Saint Petersburg on Monday and De Bruyne said his full focus is on working his way back to full match sharpness, with no concerns over his injury.

"It is just a bit irritating," he told a news conference on Saturday. "But I am used to it now. I am also less scared in the heading duels. When I was on the field, I did not think about it.

"I was not upset with Rudiger, it was one of those things on the field. He tried to block me, not to break my nose, and so it was unlucky for me.

"I knew I would not make the first match against Russia but might get some time off the bench against Denmark. I think the timing with 45 minutes and then starting against Finland is ideal to get some rhythm back.

"I felt good being back, the first half-hour was good. After that it was more difficult, but that was normal because I was playing my first minutes in three weeks. I hope to be able to hold out against Finland for a longer period of time."

In his time on the pitch in Copenhagen, De Bruyne created two chances, had two shots – both of which hit the target – and completed 74.1 per cent of 27 attempted passes.

Belgium and the Netherlands joined Italy in booking their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2020 with victories over Denmark and Austria respectively.

The world's top-ranked side Belgium had to bounce back from a goal down to beat an inspired Denmark, with both teams paying tribute to Christian Eriksen after 10 minutes as the midfielder continues his recovery from a cardiac arrest.

Roberto Martinez's side need a point in their final Group B match to make certain of top spot, but the Netherlands are already through as Group C winners after seeing off Austria.

Ukraine also picked up all three points against North Macedonia in Thursday's action – just their second-ever victory at the European Championships.

Using Opta data, we take a look at some of the best facts from across the day's action.

Ukraine 2-1 North Macedonia: Shevchenko's men end losing Euros streak

Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk were on target for the second match running to end Ukraine's six-game losing streak at the European Championships.

With Yarmolenko and Yaremchuk's first-half goals, Ukraine became the first nation to have the same two players score in their first two games at a single Euros.

Ezgjan Alioski pulled one back at the second attempt after his penalty was saved, making it two goals in three games – as many as in his previous 17 for North Macedonia.

His penalty was given after a foul on Goran Pandev, who – at at 37 years and 325 days – is the oldest player to win a spot-kick in the Euros since data was first recorded in 1980.

Ruslan Malinovskyi failed to convert from 12 yards late on in a game which saw both sides win a penalty in the competition for the first time since England v France in 2004.

It means four of the six penalties taken at Euro 2020 have not been converted. The last tournament with more was Euro 2000 (five).

Denmark 1-2 Belgium: Red Devils bounce back from early setback

Belgium showed why they are ranked number one in the world as they recovered from an early setback to make it 11 wins from their last 12 group games at major competitions.

However, they had to do things the hard way after Yussuf Poulsen struck early on in Copenhagen.

Poulsen opened the scoring after 99 seconds – the second-earliest goal ever in the tournament, behind only Dmitry Kirichenko for Russia against Greece in 2004 (65 seconds).

The one shot on target Belgium managed in the first half came via Dries Mertens, who was earning his 100th cap for his country – the fifth Belgian to reach that landmark.

But the half-time introduction of Kevin De Bruyne for Mertens transformed the Red Devils, the playmaker setting up Thorgan Hazard's leveller and then drilling in the winner.

De Bruyne's fantastic strike was teed up by Eden Hazard, who joins the Manchester City star as the two European players to assist a goal at each of the last four major tournaments.

Belgium survived a nervy finish as they won their first two European Championship matches for the first time, while Denmark have lost their first two for the first time since 2000.

Netherlands 2-0 Austria: Faultless Oranje ease through

The Netherlands followed up their opening-game win against Ukraine with a routine victory against Austria in Amsterdam.

It is the third time the Oranje have won their opening two Euros matches, having previously done so in 2000 and 2008, when they exited the competition at the semi-final and quarter-final stage respectively.

Frank de Boer's men are now unbeaten in their last nine matches at major tournaments, which is the longest run by a European nation since Portugal went 12 without defeat between 2014 and 2018.

Memphis Depay opened the scoring for the Netherlands from the penalty spot, the Lyon forward's eighth goal for his country since De Boer took charge last September, with only Belgium's Romelu Lukaku scoring more (10) across all competitions for a European side over that period.

Denzel Dumfries added the second goal and is just the second Netherlands player to net in his first two appearances at the Euros after Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2004, this after the right-back failed to score in his first 19 senior caps.

One of the unsung stars for the hosts was Dumfries' fellow defender Matthijs de Ligt, who completed 100 per cent of his 40 passes – a record for a Netherlands player in a European Championship match since records began in 1980.

Belgium planned to kick the ball out of play after 10 minutes against Denmark to pay their own mark of respect to Christian Eriksen. The world's top-ranked football nation were perhaps not anticipating, however, that they would be chasing the game – and indeed Danish shadows – at that early stage in the match.

In the end the referee, Bjorn Kuipers, seemingly had to remind the Belgium players to bring the contest to a temporary halt, sparking emotional scenes as supporters and players - Eriksen's current and former club-mates Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld among them – applauded in unison.

It was that type of occasion and that type of start for Denmark as they produced a fitting tribute to stricken team-mate Eriksen, who was likely to have been watching on from his hospital bed barely 400 yards away, where he continues to recover from a cardiac arrest.

Football was put into perspective the moment Eriksen went to ground in the Danes' opening Group B defeat to Finland – he was "gone", in the words of team doctor Morten Boesen – but thankfully updates in the five days since the incident have been largely positive.

Whether we will see the Inter playmaker on a field again remains to be seen; that he is able to smile and laugh once more with his colleagues is a huge victory in its own right. A bigger victory, indeed, than Denmark were on course for against Belgium until the Kevin De Bruyne show ensued.

 

Long before the Manchester City playmaker's half-time arrival, just 99 seconds into the game at a raucous Parken Stadium, Yussuf Poulsen finished expertly into the bottom-left corner for the second-quickest goal in European Championship history.

Poulsen profited from a Jason Denayer error, the Lyon defender looking rusty in the early stages after returning to the side in place of Dedryck Boyata at the back following a rare day off in the 3-0 win over Russia.

Roberto Martinez's Belgian charges lived up to their tag as the world's number one side in their previous match against Russia, and the professionalism of this performance – as bad as they were in the first half – will arguably heighten expectations that they can go all the way when at full strength.

Belgium mustered just one attempt in the first half – a flicked effort from Dries Mertens on his 100th cap.

The last time they managed only one effort in the opening 45 minutes was in a 2-0 loss to Spain in September 2016, Martinez's first at the helm, which preceded a run of just three defeats in their next 56 matches.

Denmark could not quite add their name to that rare list of nations to have conquered the Red Devils over the last five years, with the visitors' quality eventually shining through. Make that De Bruyne's quality.

Still recovering from a facial injury sustained in Manchester City's Champions League loss to Chelsea last month, the playmaker was introduced for the start of the second half and made an instant impact.

Against the run of play, Lukaku turned his marker and pulled the ball back for De Bruyne to tee up the unmarked Thorgan Hazard. The finish from six yards was simple, the build-up to it anything but.

That assist made De Bruyne the only European player to set up a goal in each of the last four major international tournaments and he added his own name to the scoresheet 16 minutes later.

Another flowing team move culminated in De Bruyne driving a low shot past Kasper Schmeichel. A broken nose and a broken eye socket for De Bruyne; broken dreams for Denmark as their tournament hopes are now perhaps as good as over.

This game was never solely about the result, though – one that ensures safe passage through to the knockout stages for Belgium with a game, against Finland, to spare.

The defining moment was not Denayer's error, De Bruyne's match-changing introduction or Martin Braithwaite skimming the crossbar at the end, but rather the moment when all within the stadium united to pay respect to the popular Eriksen.

"All of Denmark is with you, Christian," a banner in one of the stands read. And boy did Denmark's players show that as they gave Belgium's hugely talented squad a run for their money.

Kevin De Bruyne's match-turning performance in Belgium's 2-1 victory over Denmark was hailed as "very impressive" by coach Roberto Martinez.

After missing Belgium's 3-0 win against Russia due to an acute nose bone fracture suffered in the Champions League final, De Bruyne made a goalscoring return to action in Copenhagen on Thursday.

Yussuf Poulsen scored in the second minute of the Euro 2020 clash to give Denmark the lead, but Thorgan Hazard levelled for Belgium nine minutes into the second half after being teed up by substitute De Bruyne.

De Bruyne then fired the winner with 20 minutes to go, lashing home a brilliant shot from the edge of the penalty area.

The introduction of De Bruyne for the start of that second half proved a key tactical switch, and Martinez said the change was as much about gaining his experience as his quality.

"You never doubt Kevin De Bruyne's talent," Martinez told reporters.

"Obviously it's a big ask to come on at half-time and be able to affect the game the way he did it.

"It's not just about talent, it's also about his know-how, and the way he played in the second half he didn't look like a player that has been through surgery, that has been away from the football pitch.

"Again, it shows you the way he has looked after himself, the way he has been focused in training. But I don't think anyone could doubt his talent.

"This was a very impressive way for a player who has been away for a long time to introduce himself and affect the game in that way."

Martinez said that the atmosphere inside Parken Stadium was a factor in Denmark making a strong start to the game.

Kasper Hjulmand's side were playing their first game since midfielder Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest during their opening game, a 1-0 defeat to Finland.

Banners bearing messages to Eriksen were held aloft in the crowd and Martinez described the impact of the supporters, saying: "It's difficult to explain if you were watching on TV, it's easier if you were in the stadium.

"The fans created an incredible atmosphere and gave the home team a goal lead. At that point we were a little shell-shocked, it took us probably 20 minutes to start being ourselves.

"We couldn't get through that desire, that heart and that pressure that the Danish team put on.

"That's expected, in a way. They were playing at home, they needed to win to qualify and I felt that the first half was a lot of emotion involved that took away a lot of what we can do on a football pitch."

Kevin De Bruyne inspired Belgium to a 2-1 comeback win over Denmark that secured their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2020.

With Roberto Martinez's side trailing to an early Yussuf Poulsen goal, De Bruyne came off the bench for the second half, his first outing since injury forced him off during Manchester City's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.

And the 29-year-old quickly provided a brilliant assist for Thorgan Hazard before turning the game completely on its head with an equally superb finish that secured the points.

Just five days on from those traumatic scenes involving Christian Eriksen in Copenhagen, the home fans welcomed their heroes back to Parken by creating an electric atmosphere.

The consequences of that were apparent just two minutes in as Jason Denayer played a panicky pass out from the back that was easily intercepted by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

The Tottenham midfielder did well to shrug off his man in charging toward goal and poke the ball to Poulsen, who produced a powerful low finish into the bottom corner from just inside the box.

That early strike served to further stir the Danes, who twice went close moments later as Joakim Maehle saw a shot smothered and Martin Braithwaite flicked goalward from a low cross.

Proceedings were paused after 10 minutes for a short period of applause in support of the absent Eriksen, a tribute that served to somewhat dull the hosts' momentum.

But Belgium were relieved to see a Mikkel Damsgaard effort dribble wide of the post after great footwork in the box, once Denmark got going again after the half-hour mark.

The visitors' poor performance prompted a half-time change, the ineffective Dries Mertens making way for De Bruyne.

And the substitute made an almost immediate impact, building on a trademark burst forward from Romelu Lukaku by sitting down two opponents before teeing up Thorgan Hazard to level up from close range.

De Bruyne then went one better, getting on the end of a slick team move to smash a low, left-footed drive home from the edge of the penalty area, in front of the delighted Belgian supporters.

Denmark made a late push to get back on terms, going closest when Braithwaite brushed the bar with a header at the death, but they were ultimately held at arm's length by a team who strengthened their credentials as potential tournament winners.

What does it mean? Belgian looking strong

With six points under their belts, Belgium know that their place in the knockout stage is assured.

Denmark, meanwhile, know that only a win in their final group game could earn them a place in the latter stages of the tournament.

De Bruyne crucial to Belgium hopes

As if a goal and assist weren't proof enough of his importance, De Bruyne also won five of his six duels and made 19 passes in the opposition half during an inspirational second-half cameo.

The Manchester City's man's fitness didn't look in doubt, either, which means he is now surely guaranteed a starting berth in each of Belgium's remaining games in this tournament.

Mertens under pressure

Conversely, it is not a good look for Mertens to be the player who left the field for the matchwinner.

The 34-year-old managed just 18 touches, lost all four of his duels, and had six passes in the opposition half during a forgettable first half - he now faces a battle to get his place back.

What's next?

Belgium head back to St Petersburg to complete their group-stage campaign against Finland on Monday, while Denmark remain in Copenhagen to take on Russia on the same day.

Denmark will use some tips from their stricken team-mate Christian Eriksen as they look to thwart Romelu Lukaku in Thursday's Euro 2020 Group B match against Belgium.

Kasper Hjulmand's side are back in action for the first time since the ordeal of witnessing Eriksen's sickening cardiac arrest on the turf at Parken Stadium just before half-time in last Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Finland.

The Inter playmaker thankfully pulled through and is feeling "fine, under the circumstances" as he continues to recuperate in hospital.

But Hjulmand told reporters that Eriksen's insight into his San Siro team-mate Lukaku could prove invaluable.

Lukaku scored twice in Belgium's 3-0 win over Russia, dedicating his opening goal to his close friend Eriksen.

That made him the second Belgium player to score in at least two European Championships after Jan Ceulemans in 1980 and 1984.

"Due to Eriksen's absence, we will have to do things differently, but Belgium will have to be top to beat us." Hjulmand said. "We have to make sure that Lukaku is as uninvolved as possible. 

"Once he's on the ball, he can't be stopped. Eriksen – his team-mate at Inter – also pointed out that danger to us." 

Belgium will be without Timothy Castagne after the wing-back suffered a fractured eye socket against Russia, although Kevin De Bruyne is back in training after a similar injury and Axel Witsel (Achilles) is expected to take a place on the bench.

Aside from Eriksen, all members of Hjulmand's squad trained on Wednesday, although the coach conceded he would check on whether each felt available to play.

"It will undoubtedly be an emotional evening for us, but also for Christian," he added. 

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Denmark – Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg

Hojbjerg's tame second-half penalty against Finland was a moment to forget but the Tottenham midfielder will have to be on his game to shut down Belgium's lavishly gifted creative department. He won possession more times than any other Premier League player in 2020-21 (296), while he was second only to Manchester City's Rodri in terms of passes made (2,785).

Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne

If De Bruyne can instantly relocate the form that won him a second consecutive PFA Footballers' Footballer of the Year award then it could spell trouble for Denmark and joy for the prolific Lukaku. In 25 Premier League games this season, De Bruyne delivered 12 assists – an average of one every 167 minutes.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Denmark and Belgium's only previous meeting at a major tournament was in the group stages of Euro 1984. Denmark won 3-2, having been 2-0 down.
- Indeed, it is best to expect goals when these two come together. The only 0-0 draw between the countries came in their first meeting, back in 1922. They have averaged 3.7 goals per game since.
- Belgium have won four of their past five matches at the European Championship, as many as they had won across their first 13 games in the competition.
- The Red Devils have lost just one of their past 24 matches in all competitions, winning 20.
- Dries Mertens could make his 100th appearance for Belgium. He would join team-mates Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Eden Hazard and Witsel on the century mark.

Roberto Martinez says he has never seen "carefree" Eden Hazard work so hard and is also hopeful of having Kevin De Bruyne back to fitness for Belgium's clash with Denmark.

Hazard has been blighted by injuries during his two seasons at Real Madrid and was not deemed ready to start Belgium's 3-0 win over Russia in Saturday's Group B opener.

The 30-year-old played the final 18 minutes in Saint Petersburg – only his second international outing in 19 months, six days after coming on as a substitute against Croatia.

He managed only 18 touches of the ball during his time on the field, but Martinez is pleased with the progress being made by the Madrid forward to get back to his best.

"I've never seen him work so hard off the field," Martinez said at a news conference on Sunday. "As a captain, he feels the responsibility. From the first day he was with us, he works hard.

"Against Russia, that's the first time I've seen a carefree Hazard. Before that I always saw him thinking on the pitch.

"Now he is playing more intuitively, making moves and getting away from defenders. The challenge now is to last for 90 minutes.

"He worked individually again today, but he will get more minutes against Denmark and even more against Finland, when he should be able to play the full 90."

De Bruyne played no part in Belgium's comfortable win against Russia, secured thanks to a couple of Romelu Lukaku goals and one for Thomas Meunier.

The Manchester City man is recovering from the fractured nose and left orbital he sustained in his club side's loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final two weeks ago.

However, De Bruyne has a chance of being ready in time to feature against Denmark in Copenhagen on Thursday.

"He will resume training tomorrow," Martinez said. "After that we'll evaluate whether he can come to Copenhagen with us to play against Denmark."

Martinez also revealed that Axel Witsel will make a surprise return to action next week, just five months after tearing his Achilles tendon while playing for Borussia Dortmund.

"My idea was to have him start against Finland for the first time," he said. "That's why I named him in the 26-man group.

"But since he is ahead of schedule, he will be given some minutes against Denmark."

Belgium will be looking to build on a run of just one defeat in their last 24 matches in all competitions when they travel to Denmark.

The Danes lost 1-0 to Finland in their Group B opener, a game that was overshadowed by Christian Eriksen suffering a cardiac arrest during the first half.

Eriksen was given CPR on the pitch by medics and is now "awake" and recovering in hospital.

Denmark's players returned to the field less than two hours later and were beaten by a Joel Pohjanpalo goal, with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg missing from the penalty spot.

"They were not themselves against Finland," Martinez said. "The circumstances with Eriksen weighed on the group. 

"We can expect a different Denmark and a very tough game on Thursday. You cannot compare the circumstances

"That will be a very emotional game, especially before kick-off. They have a very strong team, as we know from the Nations League. 

"The Danes will also have the support of the fans. But we need those kinds of matches. The match should be a celebration in honour of Eriksen, as it were."

Denmark and Belgium's only previous meeting at a major tournament was in the group stages of Euro 1984, the Danes winning that one 3-2 after recovering from two goals down.

Widespread concern met the decision for Denmark and Finland to return to the pitch less than two hours after Christian Eriksen had first collapsed in Copenhagen on Saturday.

An alarming incident prompted serious fears for Eriksen's life, fears that were eased but not eradicated by positive updates on the midfielder's condition.

For those watching from afar, the swift restart could not have been anticipated. There was wonder instead for how Belgium and Russia could possibly play later.

The Belgium squad features Eriksen's Inter team-mate Romelu Lukaku and long-term Ajax and Tottenham colleagues Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.

But, sure enough, confirmation was forthcoming of the resumption in Group B's first fixture, set for 20:30 CET, with Belgium's kick-off to follow as scheduled half an hour later.

Understandably, Denmark turned in a distracted display. Lacking the same enthusiasm as earlier, they fell to a 1-0 defeat that would usually have been considered a major upset. Few were thinking about Finland's historic result, minds focused instead on Eriksen.

Indeed, it was a similar story in Saint Petersburg, even if Russia made for accommodating hosts.

Lukaku profited from hapless Andrey Semenov defending and finished ruthlessly after 10 minutes. Rather than revel in his eighth tournament goal – the most of any Belgium player – the forward made for a nearby television camera.

"Chris," he bellowed, reaching the lens. "Chris, stay strong. I love you."

Eriksen occupied Lukaku's thoughts even at a moment of apparent elation, an action that backed up the words of UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.

"At these times, the unity of the football family is so strong and [Eriksen] and his family carry with them the good wishes and prayers of everyone," Ceferin said.

Further tributes will follow and it is difficult to imagine how that agonising Parken Stadium wait for family, friends, team-mates, opponents and fans, eager for any news at all as medical staff worked at length, does not overshadow the entire tournament.

Lukaku will hope there is at least time for some Belgian cheer before the Euros concludes at Wembley next month.

If Eriksen continues to recover, the Red Devils striker can allow his attention to return to the professional task at hand: finally delivering finals glory for his country.

Now or never is the popular verdict. Belgium entered this competition with a squad that boasts the most caps and ranks second oldest, behind only Sweden.

Lukaku is 28 and should play at Qatar 2022 and beyond, but some of his team-mates may not.

While the defence is undoubtedly ageing, the injury issues that are dogging other star names have become increasingly, frustratingly regular.

As Belgium reached the latter stages of Brazil 2014, Euro 2016 and Russia 2018 – only France also figured in the quarter-finals of all three tournaments – no outfield players started more matches than Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel (all 15 – tied with Alderweireld).

In 2020-2021, the trio were restricted to 11, 36 and 18 club starts respectively.

Hazard, having dealt with a series of muscle problems, started from the bench on Saturday. De Bruyne (orbital fracture) and Witsel (torn Achilles tendon) are both still recovering.

"Those are players who have something extra," said Dries Mertens, who took up one of the vacant attacking roles. "To not have three players like that, we're going to feel that, but we have to step up and be ready."

Leander Dendoncker stepped in for Witsel and said: "Axel has such a massive role in the squad, so it's logical we're talking about him. Kevin and Eden aren't here now either, and we're all talking about their absence. It's normal; they've earned it."

But it was Lukaku who ensured that absence was not felt. His clinical opener wrecked Russian dreams and might have been quickly followed by a second had Georgi Dzhikiya not expertly intervened. There were two minutes remaining when he belatedly hit the net again for Belgium's third, celebrated in more traditional fashion.

The Nerazzurri superstar has now been involved in 26 goals (22 goals, four assists) in his 19 games for Belgium since the World Cup.

Of Lukaku's nine finals goals, only one has arrived in the knockout stages, but this early effort was crucial in seizing control of the group. On this form, he will surely also add to that tally.

For all that this was an impressive win as Hazard featured sparingly and two key midfielders not at all, there is an argument – at least from those studying their wallcharts – Belgium might actually be better served finishing second in their pool. That could potentially mean no repeat of 2018, when they landed in the trickier half of the draw and met France in the last four. The same scenario is very possible again from first place.

That was not something for Lukaku to worry about on this occasion, though.

His friend's welfare was of primary concern, and then a talismanic outing to lift spirits just a little at the end of a tough day for football.

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.

Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America have the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Following club seasons either laden with trophies or padded with statistical achievements – or, in some cases, a bit of both – a few elite-level performances could make the difference in the race to win France Football's famous award.

Stats Perform has chosen a shortlist of 14 players who could make themselves Ballon d'Or favourites should they sparkle over the next month...

 

Karim Benzema

Remarkably, Karim Benzema failed to win a trophy with Real Madrid despite registering 30 goals and nine assists in 46 games in all competitions.

That form did bring his international exile to an end, though, and if he keeps it up for France over the coming month, a Ballon d'Or challenge is not out of the question.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

Had Pep Guardiola's men finally got their hands on the Champions League trophy, the Ballon d'Or might be De Bruyne's already. Leading Belgium to Euros glory would probably do the job.

Ruben Dias

The other prime candidate for City's player of the season, Ruben Dias was a colossal performer at the heart of their defence after joining from Benfica, winning the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

Defenders' difficulties winning big individual prizes are well documented, and the last to lift the Ballon d'Or – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – did so after leading Italy to the World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes was heartbroken to lose the Europa League final on penalties as his wait for a trophy with Manchester United goes on.

However, a combined 46 direct goal involvements – the most of any Premier League player – means individual glory could be on the cards should Fernandes and Portugal shine.

Phil Foden

The PFA Young Player of the Year winner, Phil Foden blossomed in 2020-21 from prodigious talent to integral player for both City and England.

His Ballon d'Or chances are probably slimmer than those of a couple of his City team-mates, but long-awaited success for the Three Lions could put him right in the mix.

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

Winner of the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, Kane is England's undisputed star going into Euro 2020 and has every chance of topping the scoring charts again.

N'Golo Kante

Arguably the popular choice for the award, N'Golo Kante won the Champions League with Chelsea after being named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final and the final against City.

France are most observers' favourites to win the Euros and, if they do, Kante will surely be facing short odds to win the ultimate individual trophy – even if it's one in which he has little interest.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Winning the Euros with Poland might be a stretch, but finishing as top goalscorer is certainly achievable.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

With eight goals in his past nine games for Belgium, the 28-year-old could well be the man to fire Roberto Martinez's side to glory, which would make him very hard to overlook.

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day. The Euros could be his ticket to glory in 2021.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it does put him right in the mix. If he can finally win the Copa America with Argentina, Ballon d'Or number seven may well follow.

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he has only an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

He typically produces in a Brazil shirt, though, and winning the Copa America would propel him right back into the mix for the individual prize he supposedly craves above all others.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

Ronaldo won his fourth of five Ballons d'Or after Portugal triumphed at Euro 2016, and there's little doubt he would be vying for a sixth if they defend that trophy.

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

Should Uruguay upset the odds at the Copa America, you can bet Suarez will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or. Quite what Barca fans would make of that is hard to say.

Roberto Martinez will not rush Eden Hazard back into Belgium's starting line-up and says Kevin De Bruyne looks "fresh" and "ready" for Euro 2020.

Hazard has been blighted by injuries since joining Real Madrid from Chelsea two years ago and there have been concerns over his fitness for the European Championship.

The winger gave the Red Devils a lift on Sunday, though, making his first international appearance for 19 months as a late substitute in a 1-0 victory over Croatia.

Belgium boss Martinez will be patient with Hazard, who looks set to be on the bench for the Group B opener against Russia at Saint Petersburg Stadium on Saturday.

The Spaniard said: "I think the target for Eden was to be on the pitch and I think that was almost a psychological step. You need to be on the pitch, in a match scenario and it doesn't matter the minutes.

"It wasn't the case Eden needs to play bigger chunks of time on the pitch but I think the next step now will be in training to try to get the match intensity, but I was very pleased in the way that Eden came on, affected the pace of the because it's very hard to come on as a substitute to adapt to the pace of the game.

"It was a needed step, it wasn't about the minutes, it was about being able to do make that step without risk, in a safe manner and that is what we did."

Martinez is unsure when Hazard will be in a position to play an entire game, but says that is not essential.

He added: "I think it will be difficult to tell when he will be ready. It will depend on a lot of things; how the game goes, what is the scoreline, how demanding the game can be in and out of possession.

"What is important is now he is medically fit and now we have a good build-up of five days before the Russia game and then it will be about quality.

"It's not going to be about playing minutes, it's going to be about being able to see Eden Hazard with a big smile on his face and when he's on the pitch he can make the difference.

"I'm not too concerned about the minutes and I think it's a different approach, it's a tournament where we need to think we have five substitutes. It's not a lot about the starting XI, it's about every player when he's on the pitch can make a contribution.

"Five substitutes means almost 50 per cent of the outfield players can almost share the minutes, so I think that approach is going to be very important in this tournament."

Midfielder De Bruyne linked up with the Belgium squad on Monday as he recovers from the fractured nose and left orbital he suffered in Manchester City's Champions League final loss to Chelsea.

Martinez will take no risks with De Bruyne against Russia but gave a positive update on the playmaker's condition after he underwent surgery.

"Kevin De Bruyne has joined the group and that’s fantastic news," said the former Everton manager. "He looks ready, he looks fresh and just for him walking into the dining room was a real highlight of the day.

"He watched the game [against Croatia] and he's already in the mood of the team and is looking forward to slowly taking his own pace with the medical team. But it makes a big difference when he's with the players and is part of the group."

Asked how De Bruyne's recovery is going, Martinez replied: "Very well, the medical intervention went extremely well. It's still a very fresh one, so will take a few days, but the initial reaction has been really positive and he seems ready. He’s looking more forwards than backwards."

Page 3 of 8
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.