With just nine days to go until the start of Euro 2020, preparations are hotting up.

There are systems to train, friendlies to navigate and injuries to heal – hopefully – for the 24 teams involved before the delayed competition begins on June 11.

That year-long wait for the finals has helped some, with certain players able to recover form and fitness after looking likely to miss out entirely had the tournament gone ahead last year.

However, there are others for whom the rescheduling has come as a bit of a blow.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform examines some of the major contenders for the trophy and why the postponement could prove a particular problem...

 

Belgium

Roberto Martinez has been left with a major headache around three of his biggest names.

Eden Hazard may have hoped the extra year would help him recover peak form with Real Madrid but, if anything, matters have become worse.

He was limited to just 21 Madrid appearances in 2020-21, scoring four goals and providing two assists from a mere nine chances created, as fitness problems and fan frustrations persisted.

There are also worries now around Kevin De Bruyne, whose magnificent season for Manchester City ended with broken facial bones in a losing Champions League final, while Axel Witsel has not played since January 9 due to an Achilles injury.

 

Croatia

Ivan Rakitic caused a shock last September when he announced his retirement from international football, having been all set to play at the Euros had they gone ahead as planned.

While the 2018 World Cup finalists still have Luka Modric at the heart of their midfield, the Real Madrid man will be 36 this year and has come off a hectic season in which he played 48 games.

Another veteran, Ivan Perisic, last played a full match for Inter in February and Mateo Kovacic missed seven of Chelsea's final nine games of the season through injury.

England

England have some concern around Raheem Sterling, who has scored one league goal since February and fell out of favour at Manchester City. There are also problems with Marcus Rashford, who has been managing an ankle issue for several weeks and only has four league goals to his name since the turn of the year.

In midfield, Jordan Henderson has not played since undergoing groin surgery in February, Jack Grealish missed three months of action for Aston Villa and Harry Maguire's ankle ligament damage has left him battling to be fit enough for the start of the group stage.

And what of Trent Alexander-Arnold? The Liverpool right-back, sensational in 2019-20, was left out of the World Cup qualifiers in March after an inconsistent season and is hardly guaranteed a starting spot under Gareth Southgate.

 

Netherlands

The Netherlands will have to make do without Virgil van Dijk. The Liverpool star was integral to the Oranje's run to the inaugural Nations League Finals and seemed destined to head into the tournament as Europe's best centre-back. As it is, he will watch from afar, having failed to recover from the knee injury he sustained in October.

Frank de Boer became the first Netherlands head coach to fail to win any of his first four fixtures, and though he managed to correct that dismal form, his record since leaving Ajax does not exactly bode well heading into a major tournament.

There is also the issue of Donny van de Beek, who has started just four Premier League games for Manchester United and finished his first season with the Red Devils as an unused substitute as they lost on penalties to Villarreal in the Europa League final.

Spain

Ansu Fati is the big new hope for Barcelona and Spain, but injury ended the winger's season prematurely and he has not recovered in time to make Luis Enrique's 24-man squad – a selection that does not feature Sergio Ramos or any of his Real Madrid team-mates.

Ramos has only played only once – in a Champions League defeat to Chelsea – since March, and it was felt he needed time to recover away from the international stage.

It also seemed as though Adama Traore would prove a valuable impact player in the Spain attack, but the Wolves forward managed only two goals and two assists in 37 Premier League games in 2020-21.

A hectic, congested year of football culminates in the delayed European Championship, which starts on June 11 when Turkey take on Italy in Rome.

Euro 2020, hosted in 11 cities spread across the continent, was meant to be a celebration of the 60th anniversary of UEFA's international tournament. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic derailed the plans, forcing the postponement of the event until 2021.

Though the qualified teams had been readying themselves to play last year, and the pandemic has forced a much-altered football calendar in 2020-21, some countries may have benefitted from the delay.

For others, it may be a case of what might have been. Here, using Opta data, Stats Perform looks at how the main favourites to go all the way have been boosted by the postponement. 

Belgium

Romelu Lukaku – Belgium's record scorer – has built on a brilliant debut season with Inter, going on to help the Nerazzurri claim the Scudetto, with the 28-year-old netting 24 times in Serie A (a tally bettered only by Cristiano Ronaldo), at an average of one goal per 120 minutes, and providing 11 assists in the process.

Another player who has gone from strength to strength in 2020-21 has been Youri Tielemans, who lashed in an exceptional strike to win Leicester City's first FA Cup. The midfielder racked up 4,438 minutes of playing time, the sixth-highest total in Europe's top five leagues, so Roberto Martinez – whose future is uncertain – may have to manage him carefully.

England

Gareth Southgate named a 33-man provisional squad, and while the England boss does have doubts over the fitness of some key stars, he cannot complain at the wealth of talent at his disposal, with several players having come to the fore in the last year.

John Stones is back to his best, and right-backs Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier have won titles in England and Spain respectively. Ahead of them, Jude Bellingham – who could become the youngest Three Lions player to appear at the Euros – had an outstanding season with Borussia Dortmund, though it is in attack where Southgate really is spoilt for choice.

Harry Kane won the Premier League golden boot and topped the assist charts, while back-up Dominic Calvert-Lewin registered a top-flight goal every 179.63 minutes. Behind them, Phil Foden and Mason Mount are talismanic figures Champions League finalists City and Chelsea, while Jack Grealish created 81 chances – the third highest in the division – for Aston Villa, despite missing 12 games through injury. 

 

France

England's options somewhat pale in comparison to the depth Didier Deschamps has to play with. Eduardo Camavinga looked set to be one of the youngsters to break onto the scene for Les Bleus, but the Rennes teenager has not even made the squad for the rearranged tournament, while Anthony Martial is another big name to miss out.

Kylian Mbappe reached last season's Champions League final and has gone on to score 42 goals in 47 appearances across all competitions this term, averaging a strike every 89 minutes, while Antoine Griezmann is looking sharp.

As if it was not enough, Deschamps has also recalled Karim Benzema, who scored 30 goals in all competitions for Real Madrid to earn his first call up in over five years. In midfield, N'Golo Kante has been spectacular for Champions League winners Chelsea, with only six Premier League midfielders who have attempted over 75 tackles recording a higher success rate than his 53.16.

Germany

Joachim Low has decided to call it quits after the tournament, with Hansi Flick incoming. But surely that will only spur Germany on as they look to end Low's tenure on a high, and he has recalled 2014 World Cup winners Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels to help the cause.

With Timo Werner having struggled to convert chances into goals for Chelsea – scoring 12 times in 52 appearances and registering a shot conversion rate of just 7.59 in the Premier League – Muller, who created the most chances (93) and provided the most assists (18) in the Bundesliga – will share the burden, while Jamal Musiala, Bayern Munich's youngest Champions League goalscorer, is surely one of the youngsters to watch.

 

Italy

After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy were in need of a rebuild, and Roberto Mancini has provided the steady hand required.

Mancini is unbeaten in all 26 games of his Italy tenure, as he closes in on the all-time record of 30 set by Vittorio Pozzo in the 1930, and the Azzurri look well placed to challenge. One question mark could be over goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who seems destined for a move to Juventus.

Netherlands

Perhaps no team has undergone more change in the past year than the Netherlands. Ronald Koeman looked set to have a strong side heading into Euro 2020, albeit injuries would have shorn him of Memphis Depay and Donyell Malen.

As luck would have it, both of those attackers will be fit for the Oranje, and come in off the back of strong seasons with Lyon and PSV respectively. But it will not be Koeman who is in charge – he is of course now at the helm at Barcelona, though whether his tenure continues for much longer remains to be seen – with Frank de Boer his replacement.

Portugal

More records tumbled in 2020-21 for Ronaldo, though there is no doubt the 36-year-old's powers are waning slightly with age.

Portugal are, of course, the holders, having seen off France in 2016, but Fernando Santos' squad is arguably much stronger than it was five years ago, with Andre Silva – who finished behind only Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga scoring charts this season – providing a focal point up top, while Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota and Joao Felix have continued their trajectories of improvement in the last year.

But it is Ruben Dias' form over the last season that may benefit Portugal the most. The centre-back has been imperious for Man City, playing a crucial role in a defence that has conceded just 42 goals in all competitions.

Spain

With Sergio Ramos not judged to be fit, Luis Enrique has picked a relatively inexperienced – at least at international level – defence, with only 24 players named in his squad.

Pau Torres is certainly a player who has improved over the past 12 months. He has just helped Villarreal to a Europa League triumph, with the centre-back, who is sure to be interesting some of Europe's biggest clubs, being the defender with the most games played in the competition without being dribbled past (nine). Spain have also been buoyed by Aymeric Laporte's switch of allegiance from France.

Thiago Alcantara has not always hit his best form at Liverpool, though Spain's midfield is boosted by two title winners in Atletico Madrid duo Koke and Marcos Llorente, who was involved in 23 goals in 2020-21.

Up top, Gerard Moreno netted 30 goals in all competitions for Villarreal – among LaLiga players, only Lionel Messi played a part in more goals.

The Dominican Republic women’s team suffered their third defeat earlier today in the preliminary round of the Volleyball Nation’s League in Italy.

Roberto Martinez is confident Kevin De Bruyne will be fit enough to join Belgium's squad for Euro 2020, despite the facial injury he sustained in the Champions League final.

De Bruyne left the field in distress during Manchester City's 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in Porto, after taking a knock to the face from Antonio Rudiger.

It was confirmed on Sunday that the 29-year-old had sustained fractures to his nose and eye socket, and that seemed to cast some doubt over his participation in Euro 2020.

De Bruyne was always scheduled to meet up with the Belgium squad later due to his exploits for City, and Martinez is hopeful his star man will have recovered in time.

However, the Belgium coach did urge a cautious approach, with De Bruyne set to be closely monitored in the coming days.

"Kevin had a different programme, he was playing in the Champions League, that meant he had to join us seven days later," Martinez told a news conference.

"At the moment that programme has changed because unfortunately in those seven days he won't be able to rest and be with the family, it's going to be a period we need to monitor and do a lot of extra tests to see what his condition is.

"When I've spoken with Kevin, it has been quite positive as well. We've been very fortunate, Kevin doesn't need surgery. If he needed surgery, I think it would have been very difficult for Kevin to be part of the Euros.

"I think we're feeling the opposite now, because of the way that he's reacted, the treatment, we're feeling confident. We'll get a clear picture over the next seven days. It's one of those situations where we wish Kevin a speedy recovery just for him, but I feel positive he will be able to join us in the near future."

Asked if De Bruyne would be fit for Belgium's first game against Russia on June 12, Martinez replied: "We don't have an answer based on any medical facts.

"We're still assessing the extent of the injury and what is needed. I feel more confident now than I did after the final, that we'd be able to work in a way that we use Kevin in a cautious way, but a healthy way and hopefully we can see him on the pitch, enjoying his football."

After their meeting with Russia, Belgium face Denmark and Finland in their other Group B fixtures. The Red Devils play Greece and Croatia in friendlies on Friday and Monday respectively.

Eden Hazard insists he has no intention of leaving Real Madrid just yet despite failing to hit the heights expected since his move from Chelsea.

Hazard signed a five-year contract with Madrid in 2019, joining for a reported initial fee of just over €100million after seven successful years at Stamford Bridge.

However, injuries have blighted the Belgium star's time in Spain, and he has only started 21 LaLiga matches over the past two seasons.

Hazard made the first XI only 11 times in 2020-21 in all competitions, scoring four times and providing two assists, while footage of him sharing a joke with former Chelsea team-mates after Madrid's Champions League semi-final defeat infuriated fans and media in the Spanish capital.

It has been reported Madrid are prepared to cut their losses on Hazard and listen to offers in the region of €50m in the next transfer window, but the 30-year-old is not prepared to give up on his Santiago Bernabeu career.

"I still have three years of contract at Real Madrid. I like the club. I like the players. I will give everything next season for this club. I don't see myself leaving Real Madrid now," he said on Monday.

"We all know the first two years has been bad because of the injuries. I know myself and I know if I'm fully fit, I can do great things for this club.

"First of all I want to think about the Euros, then I'll give everything for this club next season. That's my club.

"I still have good years ahead of me. I was injured at Chelsea and came back to a good level. I just need match rhythm. I don't have many minutes in my legs."

Asked to sum up his season, Hazard replied: "Unlucky.

"Everything has gone well since the start of my career. I've never had many injuries. It's been different for a year and a half.

"I know I can't put everything down to bad luck, but there's been a lot. The coronavirus crisis, the injuries. I was always strong when I could play lots of matches in a row; now, that wasn't possible.

"I'm close to my good level. I just have to get match rhythm now. I'll do everything I can not to get injured."

Hazard is with the Belgium squad preparing for friendly matches against Greece and Croatia this week.

Roberto Martinez's side begin their Euro 2020 campaign against Russia in St Petersburg on June 12.

Roberto Martinez said Eden Hazard's condition is the best he's had for a long time after picking the Real Madrid forward in his 26-man squad for Euro 2020.

Hazard features in the squad despite the former Chelsea star continuing to endure a difficult spell with Madrid.

He has once again battled several injuries during the 2020-21 campaign, limiting him to just seven starts in 14 LaLiga appearances.

Those appearances have resulted in three goals and a pair of assists, with Hazard creating six chances for his team-mates in the league.

But Martinez is now satisfied with his fitness levels, with the focus for Hazard now on finishing the season strong for Madrid, who host Villarreal on Saturday knowing they must better Atletico Madrid's result at Real Valladolid to win LaLiga.

Hazard played just 13 minutes in Sunday's 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao, touching the ball 18 times and without creating a single chance or having a shot at goal.

 

But Martinez told a media conference: "The situation with him is we know exactly where he is, his condition is the best he's had for a long time.

"The level of fitness is really satisfactory, we look also at how important he is for the national team. [It's] important he finishes the season strongly for Real Madrid." 

There are few surprises in the Belgium squad, with Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, FA Cup final hero Youri Tielemans and Dries Mertens all selected.

Divock Origi misses out after a season in which he has been involved in only nine Premier League games for Liverpool.

De Bruyne's involvement in the Champions League final on May 29 will have no impact on their preparations for the rescheduled tournament, Martinez stressed.

"The date we'll meet is the 31st May and we'll be preparing [for] two friendlies," he added. 

"De Bruyne is [our] only player in the final and will be joining the squad on 7th June. Each player's individual needs are being catered for.

"Each player will have the same break and perfect preparation for the tournament."

Belgium begin their Euro 2020 campaign on June 12 against Russia in St Petersburg.
 

Belgium squad in full:

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Matz Sels.

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld, Dedryck Boyata, Jason Denayer, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen.

Wing-backs: Yannick Carrasco, Timothy Castagne, Nacer Chadli, Thorgan Hazard, Thomas Meunier.

Midfielders: Kevin De Bruyne, Leander Dendoncker, Dennis Praet, Youri Tielemans, Hans Vanaken, Axel Witsel.

Forwards: Jeremy Doku, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Leandro Trossard.

Strikers: Michy Batshuayi, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku.

Romelu Lukaku is hoping to fire Belgium to Euro 2020 glory after gaining a "killer mentality" with Scudetto winners Inter.

The 27-year-old has scored 21 Serie A goals and provided a further 10 assists this season for Inter, who were crowned champions on Sunday for the first time in 11 years.

It is just the second title won by the prolific striker across his 12-year senior career after finishing first in the Belgian Pro League with Anderlecht in 2009-10.

Lukaku, who joined Inter from Manchester United in August 2019, has now set his sights on inspiring Belgium to their first piece of major silverware at the delayed Euro 2020 finals.

"Winning a club title allows you to gain experience and allows you to know how to approach matches," he told La Tribune. "You get this killer mentality.

"That is something I've missed in my career. I've given up too many times before. Then I said to myself 'I'm tired, I'm 27, it's time for a change'. But the work doesn't stop here.

"Right now I'm happy because we are champions, but I'm already focused on the Euros because it's important to me.

"I really hope the other Belgium players, like [Thibaut] Courtois, Eden [Hazard], [Axel] Witsel and [Kevin] De Bruyne, can also win titles. 

"That would be good for the team. It would bring a good team spirit and we can all move forward together."

Lukaku is scoring from 23.6 per cent of his shots – making him the first Serie A player since 2004-05 to tally 20 goals and 10 assists in the same season.

The ex-Chelsea striker's 31 combined goals and assists in Serie A this season is the most of any player, with Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo next on the list with 30.

Despite enjoying one of his most prolific seasons yet in front of goal, however, Lukaku does not believe he is the best striker in the world.

"That is Karim Benzema, without a doubt," he said.

Benzema is averaging a goal every 121.62 minutes in LaLiga for title contenders Real Madrid this season, compared to Lukaku's return of a goal every 127.29 minutes in Serie A.

The Frenchman has 21 league goals in total this campaign and a further eight assists.

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez says he would like to see squad size limits expanded for Euro 2020 due to the COVID-19 situation.

Martinez revealed after Belgium's 8-0 2022 World Cup qualifying win over Belarus on Tuesday that the idea had been discussed among coaches including England's Gareth Southgate and Italy's Roberto Mancini.

Mancini flagged the idea of expanding squad sizes from 23 to 26 in the media on Monday, while Martinez noted the Royal Belgian Football Association (KBVB) was pushing for a change.

"I support the Royal Belgian Football Association completely in the idea of increasing the squad numbers," Martinez said.

"I think it's something that's needed. It would match the changes that've been made in the current situation in world football, with the five substitutions, the uncertainty of the pandemic attack and the extra level of injuries, I think it would be a good thing to do."

The Euros are set to be played across 12 cities in a dozen European countries, with Belgium's group playing in Copenhagen and St Petersburg, adding unique logistical challenges to the event.

Mancini and Martinez have argued that the congested recent football schedule and subsequent increase in injuries means the change made sense.

"I think we've got a bigger picture now international football is not what it used to be," Martinez said.

"They only had one big tournament around the corner. Now the Euros were delayed, in the next 18 months we're going to be participating in the qualifiers for the World Cup. You've got the World Cup at the end of it and you've got the Nations League final.

"There's many, many players who'll be needed over the next 18 months and everything is a process."

Belgium, who made the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, are among the favourites to lift the European title and Martinez said he was narrowing in on his final squad for the tournament.

"The information of this camp will be essential for the final list for the Euros," the former Everton and Swansea City boss said. "Everything is taken into consideration.

"When you go to tournament football, it's very, very different. We think that tournament football, you've got two tournaments in one tournament. First you've got the group phase, the three games, and then the knockout.

"We need to have players for both tournaments. It's a mixture. I'm willing to do it like we did in the World Cup 2018, making sure we take every individual to fit a good balance in the squad and pick the best members for the best squad possible."

Leandro Trossard and Hans Vanaken scored twice as Belgium eased past Belarus 8-0 to move to the top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group in style.

Belgium fell behind in their first two Group E games - a 3-1 win comeback win over Wales and 1-1 draw with Czech Republic - but were four goals ahead at half-time on Tuesday.

Michy Batshuayi opened the scoring for Belgium after 14 minutes at Den Dreef in Leuven in the absence of the rested Romelu Lukaku and Vanaken added a quickfire second for the home side.

Trossard and Jeremy Doku were also on the scoresheet before half-time and further strikes followed after the interval from Dennis Praet and Christian Benteke, before Trossard and Vanaken completed the rout - Belarus' heaviest-ever loss.

Batshuayi failed to beat Aleksandr Gutor from close range early on but he made amends by picking out the roof of the net from a tight angle from the next chance that fell his way.

Vanaken doubled Belgium's lead three minutes later with a thumping volley from six yards and Trossard sent a glorious third into the top-left corner from long range.

Martinez's men were home and dry before the interval as Doku beat Gutor with a well-taken strike after being played in by Praet.

Praet went from provider to goalscorer four minutes into the second half with a precise drive from outside the box to join Vanaken and Trossard in scoring his first senior international goal.

Belgium squandered some presentable opportunities before Benteke guided Toby Alderweireld's cross into the bottom-right corner with a crisp first-time finish for a sixth goal. 

Vanaken was somehow denied his second by a Gutor save on the line, but he would go on to round off the scoring late on after Trossard had doubled his own tally with a shot through the legs of the Belarus goalkeeper.

Thibaut Courtois says Belgium's players are "hungry" to get their hands on a first-ever World Cup in Qatar next year.

Belgium, ranked number one in the world, finished third at the 2018 tournament, beating England in a play-off after they had lost to eventual winners France at the semi-final stage.

Roberto Martinez's side started their qualification campaign for next year's competition with a 3-1 win over Wales, though they were held to a 1-1 draw by the Czech Republic on Saturday.

Courtois is no stranger to silverware, having won both the Premier League and LaLiga twice, as well as the Europa League back in 2012.

The Real Madrid goalkeeper desperately wants to add the World Cup to that haul - and he is in no doubt his team-mates share his desire.

"I'm very hungry," he told a media conference ahead of Belgium taking on Belarus on Tuesday. "The prizes you are yet to win are the ones you want to win the most.

"The Euros, a World Cup and the Champions League are the ones I haven't won yet. But I think all the guys in the squad are very hungry to play for these prizes.

"Every player is hungry to win those titles, you see that in every team. I have experienced that at Real, the adrenaline that you feel when you win something is like a drug you want to keep on taking.

"In a season, you don't get around to actually winning a trophy that often, so in every final and ahead of every tournament, that hunger is really present."

After a difficult start to his Madrid career upon joining from Chelsea in 2018, Courtois has been one of Los Blancos' most consistent performers over the past two seasons.

He has kept 11 clean sheets in LaLiga this term – a tally bettered only by Jan Oblak and Yassine Bounou – while only those two and Marc-Andre ter Stegen have a better save percentage than Courtois' 72.3 per cent of goalkeepers who have played more than three games.

Courtois has been regularly praised by boss Zinedine Zidane for his game-saving heroics, and the 28-year-old believes a number of tweaks to his game have helped him to become a more "complete goalkeeper".

"I think I've grown in possession, playing with my feet," he said. "At Madrid, with Zidane, we need to play and pass under pressure. I have improved a lot in that.

"Of course, I'm also more experienced now. I read situations a bit better and I've gotten stronger mentally as well.

"It's a combination of all those things. I'm becoming more complete as a goalkeeper, but that is something you need to keep working on.

"It's an evolution, you are always evolving in football."

Roberto Martinez was impressed by the way Belgium rallied to secure a 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with a "very good" Czech Republic side.

Lukas Provod put Czech Republic in front five minutes into the second half via a rasping drive from 20 yards out at Sinobo Stadium on Saturday.

Belgium hit back to salvage a point in Prague courtesy of Romelu Lukaku's seventh goal in his last six games for his country.

Czech Republic struck the woodwork twice and Kevin De Bruyne hit the post before Tomas Soucek's last-gasp header was cleared off the line by Belgium defender Toby Alderweireld.

The two nations have four points apiece after two Group E matches early in the battle to qualify for next year's tournament in Qatar, with Czech Republic top on goal difference.

Belgium manager Martinez was pleased with the way his team responded to falling behind, having also fought back to beat Wales 3-1 on Wednesday.

"We were put in difficulty by a very good Czech team and we had to adapt, to change our way of playing and responding," Martinez said.

"We were able to react and that's what I will remember from this match. We did not accept the situation after conceding the goal. We have to do better, of course, but I'm pretty happy with the team's reaction."

Martinez revealed Dries Mertens was withdrawn due to a shoulder injury, but was unsure over the extent of the damage.

The Spaniard refused to be drawn on whether in-form striker Lukaku and key midfielder De Bruyne will be rested when the top-ranked side in international football face Belarus on Tuesday.

"We will look at each case separately. We will first regenerate the bodies, because playing three matches in seven days is not easy." he said.

Romelu Lukaku maintained his magnificent form to rescue a 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw for Belgium against the Czech Republic on a miserable Saturday in Prague.

A superb first senior international goal from Lukas Provod put an impressive Czech Republic side in front five minutes into the second half at Sinobo Stadium on Saturday.

Belgium came from behind to beat Wales in their first Group E game in midweek and they rallied once again to secure a point courtesy of Lukaku’s seventh goal in his last six games for the Red Devils.

Both sides struck the woodwork in an entertaining contest, but had to settle for a draw that leaves them with four points apiece from two matches early in their bid to qualify for the tournament in Qatar next year.

Lukaku fired over and Dries Mertens had an early shot palmed wide by Tomas Vaclik in a promising start for the world's number one international side.

The Czech Republic sensed Belgium were there for the taking as the rain continued to lash down and Michael Krmencik cut inside Jason Denayer before striking the outside of the near post with a left-footed strike 16 minutes in.

There was no let-up in a pulsating first half and Vaclik produced a magnificent one-handed save to keep out Leander Dendoncker's rasping drive, before Kevin De Bruyne failed to generate any power on Lukaku's cross with a close-range header.

It was the home side who got the breakthrough early in the second half with a brilliant finish from winger Provod, who found the far corner of the net with a venomous right-foot finish from 20 yards out after being picked out by Jakub Jankto.

Belgium were only behind for 10 minutes, though, as De Bruyne threaded a ball through to Lukaku and the striker turned Ondrej Celustka inside-out before finding the back of the net with a finish Vaclik might have been disappointed not to keep out.

De Bruyne almost put Roberto Martinez's men in front but saw his right-foot strike come back off the outside of the post and Jan Boril hit the crossbar with a measured late drive at the other end.

Tomas Soucek - captaining his country for the first time - went agonisingly close to snatching a dramatic win right at the end when Toby Alderweireld nodded his looping header off the line, so it ended honours even.

Roberto Martinez praised the "incredible personality" of his Belgium players after a 3-1 win over Wales on Wednesday.

Belgium fell behind in the World Cup qualifier in Leuven after Harry Wilson's 10th-minute opener in Group E.

But they responded and were ahead at the break thanks to Kevin De Bruyne and Thorgan Hazard, before Romelu Lukaku's 73rd-minute penalty.

Belgium coach Martinez was pleased with the character his side showed after falling behind as the nation picked up their first victory against Wales since September 2012.

"We knew that it was going to be a tough game. That's nothing different, but I think it became even harder than we expected," he told a news conference.

"The moment that we conceded the first goal I thought Wales adapted to the game better than us. It was made for the perfect away team performance.

"The conditions, the lack of fans and in the first action that Wales had they showed a great move where it shows the quality that they have in individuals. We then had two choices, either accept it and then allow the performance to go away from you and it becomes an away game. Or you show personality and bravery and that's what the team did. They never accepted that the game would go away from us.

"We scored two very good goals from open play in the first half and then in the second half even though we didn't create many opportunities, every time we were in front of goal it looked like we had a chance to score. So very pleased by the incredible personality that the players showed today."

Belgium continue their qualifying campaign away to the Czech Republic on Saturday.

Belgium got their World Cup qualification campaign up and running as Kevin De Bruyne inspired them to a 3-1 comeback win over Wales.

In the first meeting of the teams since Wales' memorable 3-1 triumph in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, the world's number one ranked side fell behind to Harry Wilson's 10th-minute opener.

Gareth Bale was central to Wales' opener, though Belgium's star player subsequently stepped up, levelling proceedings with a stunning effort.

Thorgan Hazard completed the turnaround six minutes later and, after a bright second-half performance from Wales, Roberto Martinez's team sealed a strong start to Group E through Romelu Lukaku's penalty.

Wales suffered a blow when Joe Allen hobbled off injured in the eighth minute, yet the visitors were celebrating a wonderfully worked goal moments later.

Bale was the heart of the 17-pass move, threading a perfect first-time throughball into the path of Wilson, who calmly slotted home.

De Bruyne's sensational right-wing cross handed Lukaku a golden chance to restore parity, only for the Inter forward to blaze over.

Wales' luck did not last, though, with De Bruyne taking full advantage of being given space and time 25 yards out – the Manchester City star's strike clipping in off the right-hand upright.

Wearing the number 10 shirt typically taken by his older brother Eden, Hazard got the assist for De Bruyne's equaliser, and the Borussia Dortmund playmaker turned scorer when he steered Thomas Meunier's cross home.

No stranger to magnificent overhead kicks, Bale could have equalised early in the second half, but failed to make full contact with an acrobatic attempt.

Lukaku saw a shot well blocked with 24 minutes remaining and De Bruyne sliced wide on the rebound.

But Wales' lingering hopes were quashed when Chris Mepham flung a boot at Dries Mertens and Lukaku drilled in from 12 yards to make sure of the victory.

The international break might bring respite from the packed club calendar, but with Qatar 2022 now just 20 months away, top players have little chance for rest.

Still, the start of the European World Cup qualifiers brings an opportunity for the new names on the international scene to impress, particularly with more established stars unlikely to be involved in every minute of matches over these two weeks.

Several of the continent's top teams have offered first-time call-ups to those enjoying fine form and, while some were anticipated, others have left even the players themselves surprised.

We have picked through a selection of the new faces to look out for, with a sprinkling of Opta data to highlight why they deserve a chance to impress for their country.

 

Belgium: Orel Mangala and Albert Sambi Lokonga

Stuttgart's Orel Mangala has been linked with Arsenal and RB Leipzig due to his performances for Stuttgart this season. Only three midfielders have regained possession more often in the Bundesliga than the 23-year-old (166).

Also hoping to make his senior Belgium debut at the heart of midfield is Albert Sambi Lokonga, who assumed the captain's armband at Anderlecht less than a month after turning 21.

Lokonga, who could get a chance in place of the injured Axel Witsel, has regained possession 35 more times than any team-mate this season (157) and is also fourth for chances created (22).

Croatia: Kristijan Lovric

With Ante Rebic and Bruno Petkovic injured, the coming matches could offer a real chance to impress for Kristijan Lovric.

The HNK Gorica star is second in the top scorer standings in Croatia's top flight, with 15 goals in 24 appearances. With four assists also to his name, Lovric is behind only Tottenham's Europa League slayer Mislav Orsic and Ramon Mierez (both on 20) for direct goal involvements this season.

It's a seriously impressive return for the 25-year-old, particularly as he plays predominantly wide on the left of the Gorica attack.

England: Ollie Watkins

West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone may get the chance to win a first senior England cap, but a man almost certain to be given a chance in attack is Ollie Watkins.

The Aston Villa forward became the 10th Premier League player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool, and the first in a decade, in October's extraordinary 7-2 win over the reigning champions.

He has 10 in the top flight this term, while only captain Jack Grealish (17) has had more direct goal involvements than Watkins (15) in all competitions for Villa this season. Not bad for a man who was playing in England's sixth tier just six years ago.

 

Germany: Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala

Rising Bayern Munich star Jamal Musiala was expected to be named in Joachim Low's squad after he pledged his international future to Germany rather than England.

The 18-year-old, who only signed his first professional contract this month, is Bayern's youngest ever Champions League goalscorer and has already played 18 times in the Bundesliga this season.

Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz has also earned the right to shine on the senior stage. He is one of just two players under the age of 20 to be directly involved in at least eight goals across the top-five European leagues this season.

Italy: Rafael Toloi and Matteo Ricci

Brazilian-born Rafael Toloi has made it to the age of 30 without a senior international appearance, but his performances for Gian Piero Gasperini's outstanding Atalanta side made him hard to overlook.

Toloi averages seven possession regains per match for Atalanta this season and is comfortable when using the ball, completing 493 passes in the opposition half, the most of any Atalanta defender barring Berat Djimsiti.

Spezia midfielder Matteo Ricci, meanwhile, boasts 19 chances created in Serie A this season as well as 151 times winning back the ball, by far the highest tally for his team.

Netherlands: Jeremiah St Juste

Jeremiah St Juste has impressed at the back for Mainz this season, despite their involvement in a tense battle to avoid the drop.

There are only five Bundesliga defenders to win more tackles and duels combined than the 24-year-old this season (he has managed 165).

Previously a full-back with Feyenoord, St Juste brings a vital commodity to modern central defending: speed. Last season, he clocked a sprint of 22.1 miles per hour, bettered only at the time by Bayern winger Kingsley Coman.

Poland: Kacper Kozlowski

A relative unknown outside Poland, even Kacper Kozlowski himself was shocked to be called up to Paulo Sousa's squad this month.

Clearly, though, he has caught the eye for some all-action displays in the top flight for Pogon Szczecin. The 17-year-old averages 8.3 duels won and 17 passes ending in the final third per 90 minutes, each the most of any teenage midfielder in the competition.

Kozlowski, who is also renowned for a fierce long-range shot, has been linked with some of the world's biggest clubs since making his senior debut at just 15, with Manchester United said to be among them.

 

Portugal: Joao Palhinha and Nuno Mendes

Linked with Manchester City (among others), Sporting CP full-back Nuno Mendes has been described as the standout young talent in Portugal's top flight.

Only Wilson Manafa (49) has completed more dribbles among defenders this season than Mendes (29), who has played in all but four of the unbeaten leaders' league matches.

The 18-year-old is joined in the Portugal squad by team-mate Joao Palhinha, a robust midfielder who has won 208 duels in the Primeira Liga in 2020-21 – no player in his position has won more.

Spain: Bryan Gil and Pedri

Pedri has been a revelation for Barcelona in his first season at Camp Nou, establishing himself as a key part of Ronald Koeman's midfield despite only turning 18 last November.

He has played 42 times already in 2020-21, the most of anyone at the club, and became the youngest player to record 100 touches in a single LaLiga game for at least 15 years against Osasuna this month.

Bryan Gil, meanwhile, has been thriving on loan at Eibar from Sevilla and in January became the second player born this century to score twice in the same LaLiga match, following in the footsteps of Ansu Fati.

 

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