Belgium v Russia: Lukaku can get Red Devils up and running

Belgium v Russia
Saturday, 20:00
Live on ITV1

Belgium hoping to strike gold

Every big football tournament seems to throw up a “golden generation” and Belgium carry that rather dubious moniker this time.

It’s almost always associated with a team boasting individuals at the peak of their powers that hasn’t yet managed to land a big trophy.

So will it be different for Belgium this time? The Betfair Exchange Euro 2020 tournament winner market makes them 8.27/1 third favourites behind France at 6.05/1 and England at 7.613/2.

That seems fair, or perhaps understandable is the word, given that France are world champions and England have a large chunk of home advantage. But Belgium are top of the FIFA World Rankings and have got there by winning lots of games.

Roberto Martinez’s side showed at the 2018 World Cup that they can go a long way in big tournaments and would have gone into the final against Croatia as favourites had France not edged them out in a tight semi.

Belgium are 2.526/4 to make the last four again but, first up, they get to flex their muscles with an opener against Russia in the Gazprom Arena in St Petersburg.

Their build-up – a 1-1 draw with Greece and a 1-0 win over Croatia – hasn’t exactly set pulses racing but that’s no bad thing with a long road, hopefully paved with gold, lying ahead.

Different opening in store for Russians

Expectations in Russia were at a low ebb ahead of the 2018 World Cup finals. Their team just didn’t look to have enough quality to make an impact. In fact, just avoiding embarrassment was seen by many as the main objective.

And then the tournament hosts kicked off their home World Cup by thrashing Saudi Arabia 5-0, riding the unexpected momentum to a surprise place in the quarter-finals.

Stanislav Cherchesov remains in charge and it’s 3.8514/5 that the Russians reach the last eight once more.

However, if game one is about setting the tone, that doesn’t bode well at all. Even though they have home advantage again, playing the group favourites first up instead of the group whipping boys threatens to put Russia on the back foot from the off.

Their qualifying campaign went well enough as they won eight and lost two. Russia beat Scotland, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and San Marino home and away but lost twice to the group favourites.

Those group favourites were… Belgium! Russia lost 3-1 in Brussels and crashed 4-1 at home.

There’s a feeling that the tournament being delayed a year could have gone against Cherchesov’s men although their two warm-up games – 1-1 in Poland and a 1-0 home win over Bulgaria – were certainly acceptable.

Belgium kicked off the 2018 World Cup with a routine 3-0 win over Panama although it took them until the second half to score the first goal.

At the 2016 Euros, the Red Devils lost their opener 2-0 to Italy before hitting their stride with a trio of wins.

So there’s just a few hints there that this particular generation of Belgians are slowish starters in tournaments.

In the Match Odds market, Belgium are 1.814/5 for the win which many will be happy to snap up. Russia are 5.59/2 while The Draw is 3.7511/4.

I definitely think Belgium will win but it might be a shrewder option to head to the Half Time/Full Time market and back Draw/Belgium at 5.14/1.

As mentioned, they haven’t been pulling trees up in recent friendlies and may just want to size the Russians up before going in for the second-half kill when Martinez can utilise his far greater firepower from the bench.

Kevin De Bruyne remains a doubtful starter after his Champions League final injury but, if things are tight, there’s a chance he’d be brought on.

This could also form the basis of an in-play strategy; sit tight until the break and then go in on Belgium after half-time. It’s entirely possible that one second-half Belgian goal could lead to another so keep that in mind.

‘Yes’ is the underdog at 2.021/1 in the Both Teams to Score market but it could be worth a look.

Russia scored both home and away in those qualifying defeats to Martinez’s men and, if there is a weakness with Belgium, it’s their defence where Jan Vertonghen and and Toby Alderweireld – combined age 66 – still man the decks.

Not that Russia have a forward line of speedsters to take advantage but Belgium can be got at and despite lots of clean sheets in qualifying against poor sides, they’re still vulnerable to middleweights or heavy hitters. Russia would qualify as the former.

With that the case, Over 2.5 goals at 2.166/5 also has some logic given that the two past meetings between this pair produced goal make-ups of four and five.

With Eden Hazard way short of playing time and form and the doubts over De Bruyne, all roads lead to Romelu Lukaku when looking at scorer bets.

The big striker has had a sensational season with Inter, firing them to the Serie A title, and he bagged the only goal in the friendly victory over Croatia last week.

His first goals for Belgium, a brace, came in an away game to Russia back in 2010.

He added another in the qualifying win in St. Petersburg in late 2019 and since 2016 he’s blasted in 49 goals in just 51 games for his country.

Odds-against quotes for an anytime goal are a welcome surprise for a man who scored twice in Belgium’s opening win in the last World Cup.

It’s very noticeable when perusing Lukaku’s fantastic scoring record that he’s netted twice in the same game on multiple occasions for Belgium. The exact count is 11 times in his last 34 internationals so, on those numbers, he’s worth a small bet at 7.26/1 to score 2 or more.

I’ll also take the Bet Builder option of Lukaku First to Score for their Team and Belgium win at 4.77/2.

Opta stat

Romelu Lukaku is Belgium’s top scorer at major tournaments (World Cup + European Championships), with seven goals in 15 games. Six of those seven goals have come in the group stages.