Sloppy Russia beaten by clinical Belgians in Euro 2020 opener in St. Petersburg
First-half goals from Romelu Lukaku and Thomas Meunier – both of which came from sloppy defending by the hosts – were enough to give the Group B favourites a significant headstart after just 34 minutes before Lukaku struck again late on to add further shine to the scoreline.
Much of the build-up to the game at Krestovsky Stadium had focused on events elsewhere after Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch in the other Group B fixture in Copenhagen.
But after the news filtered out that the Inter Milan star was awake and stable in hospital, a relieved football fraternity turned its attentions back to the action on the pitch.
Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov selected a line-up that included 37-year-old veteran Yuri Zhirkov and suggested that his team would attempt to smother Belgium in midfield and shut down service to the prolific Lukaku.
In the opposition dugout, Belgian boss Roberto Martinez was without key playmaker Kevin De Bruyne as he continues to recover from the facial fractures he suffered in the Champions League final, while Eden Hazard began on the bench as the Real Madrid man continues to regain full fitness after another injury-dogged season.
It was still a Belgium team stacked with a wealth of talent and experience, and who started the tournament as the number one-ranked team in the world and among the favorites for the competition outright.
Before the game had even started there was a smattering of discontent among some in the media when Belgian players were booed by sections of the 30,000 crowd as they took the knee and their Russian counterparts remained standing.
Once play did begin, a lively start from both teams soon gave way to a pattern of Belgian possession and Russia defensive frailty.
It was a lapse from Russian central defender Andrey Semenov which gifted Lukaku and Belgium the opening goal after 10 minutes.
Semenov bundled a cross straight into the path of the big Inter Milan forward, and despite Lukaku being clearly in an offside position when the ball was played, the touch from the hapless Semenov meant that was irrelevant.
Lukaku gratefully turned the ball past Anton Shunin to score his fourth goal in five appearances against Russia, whose appeals for offside were in vain.
Lukaku followed up the goal with a message of support for Inter Milan teammate Eriksen, mouthing "Chris I love you" into the pitchside camera.
Lukaku went to the camera and said "I love you" to Christian Eriksen after scoring for Belgium ♥️ pic.twitter.com/ySeU9OWvUg— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 12, 2021
Russia were behind but still threatened sporadically, with Mario Fernandes heading at Thibaut Courtois from a corner and Magomed Ozdoev dragging the ball wide of the post when set up by a chest-down from captain Artem Dzyuba.
At the other end, Shunin made a sprawling save to keep the deficit at one, before both managers were forced into a change when Daler Kuzyaev and Timothy Castagne suffered a nasty clash of heads. Kuzyaev was replaced by Russia’s 2018 World Cup hero Denis Cheryshev while Thomas Meunier came on for Belgium.
It was the Belgian substitute who doubled the lead on 34 minutes, and again it was down to a defensive lapse as Shunin flapped a low cross straight into the path of the man in red, who bundled the ball home.
Russia boss Cherchesov was forced into another change as Zhirkov pulled up injured, indicating that the gamble to start a veteran who has only played 79 minutes of Russian Premier League football since the turn of the year had backfired.
He was replaced by Vyacheslav Karavaev, a man many felt would have added more impetus to Russia’s left flank had he started the game.
Approaching half-time Belgium threatened to turn the game into a passing exercise as the Russian ranks massed behind the ball.
Cherchesov installed CSKA defender Igor Diveev in place of Dmitry Barinov at the break and made a double change soon after as Roman Zobnin and substitute Cheryshev were hooked off, replaced by Aleksey Miranchuk and Maksim Mukhin in a desperate bid to get a foothold in the game.
Belgium fans will have welcomed the sight of Eden Hazard being introduced for Dries Mertens on 72 minutes in what remained a comfortable night for the Red Devils, who were returning to the scene of their World Cup semi-final defeat to France but also the venue where they defeated England to pick up third place at that tournament.
The night was capped when Lukaku broke clear to drill the ball home in the 88th minute, as Belgium made a statement of intent and the 'Golden Generation' of talent begin what is potentially their last dance together in a bid for major silverware.
Russia began the game as underdogs amid hope rather than any real expectation from fans, and will at least take cold comfort from the fact that four of the best third-placed teams from the six groups at Euro 2020 still progress to the knockout stages.
However, even that task will not be straightforward after Group B outsiders Finland pulled off a shock 1-0 win against Denmark in Copenhagen, in a game which was restarted despite the worrying scenes with Eriksen.
Finland and Russia next meet in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, while Belgium travel to Denmark one day later, already looking set fair for comfortable passage from the group.