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Previewing Belgium v Russia at the Gazprom Arena

Euro 2020 arrives in St. Petersburg this weekend as Belgium take on Russia at the Gazprom Arena, and so we've asked long-time friend to the club Toke Theilade to preview Saturday's big game. 
Previewing Belgium v Russia at the Gazprom Arena

It has been a long wait, but Saturday evening, Russia finally kicks off the Euro 2020 with a home game against Belgium. The two teams also met in the qualification, where Belgium won twice, so it is time for revenge for Stanislav Cherchesov’s team. The game is played at FC Zenit’s home ground in St. Petersburg, where Russia also defeated Egypt three years ago at the World Cup in 2018. As usual, Zenit is heavily represented in the Russian squad, and even Saturday’s opponent has a former Zenit player in the ranks.

Zenit’s impact on Sbornaya

Russia goes into the game as underdogs with Belgium ranking as one of the pre-tournament favourites among both experts and bookmakers across the continent. However, Sbornaya has reason for optimism as the results in 2021 have been good. Russia have lost just one of their five games this year, and last week they took home a 1-0 victory at home against Bulgaria in the final friendly.

Belgium is on another level than Sbornaya’s previous opponents though, and Cherchesov is expected to select a slightly different approach than against some of the weaker sides Russia have met this year. The Russian side is likely to take a more cautious approach with three central defenders, and then bring men forward quickly on counters after conquering the ball. When Russia is at their top level, their counter attacks can stun even the strongest of opponents, which we saw at the World Cup, and Cherchesov is hoping to replicate that.

Among the stars the Russians are putting their hopes on is a core of Zenit players. They’ll obviously need to bring their very best if Sbornaya is to get the start to the tournament that the nation wishes for.

The key player and the biggest star on the team is Artem Dzyuba, target man and captain. With 29 goals for Russia, he is the highest scoring player in the squad, and he is just one goal behind Zenit legend Aleksandr Kerzhakov’s record on 30 goals despite having played 39 games less. It is thus a realistic scenario to expect Dzyuba to overtake his former teammate at some point during the tournament.

On the midfield Zenit are represented by Magomed Ozdoev and Daler Kuzyaev, sadly youngster Aleksandr Mostovoy has been forced to withdraw at the last minute due to a positive COVID-19 test. Both Ozdoev and Kuzyaev have been part of the national team since before the World Cup, and they are among the more experienced players in the squad. Ozdoev is likely to start against Belgium as the holding midfielder responsible for bringing balance to the team, while Kuzyaev might come on from the bench like he did against Bulgaria.

Defensively, we find two of Dzyuba’s best helpers in Zenit wingbacks Vyacheslav Karavaev (right) and Yuri Zhirkov (left). Both are offensive minded and highly capable of putting their teammates in dangerous positions, and both could start against Belgium.

Now 37-year-old Yuri Zhirkov is currently on 104 caps for the national team, and he is the only remaining member of the squad that famously reached the semifinals in 2008. Despite his high age, he’s still going strong, and don’t be surprised to see him play a role during the tournament.

Axel Witsel return’s home

Borussia Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel never got to play at the brand-new Zenit Arena while wearing the blue-white-sky blue kit. He moved to China in 2016, when the stadium construction was still in the final stage.

However, the Belgian midfielder, who is now 32 years old, does have experience playing at the stadium, nevertheless. During the World Cup three years ago, Belgium and Witsel appeared in two games in St. Petersburg, where they lost the semi-final to France first, but also later won bronze against England. Witsel played full time in both games.

Axel Witsel famously joined Zenit from Benfica in 2012, and during his 4.5 seasons at the club, he turned into one of the best midfielders ever seen in Russia. With a total of 180 games and 22 goals, he was a part of one of the strongest Zenit teams of all time together with fellow foreign stars Hulk, Danny, Ezequiel Garay as well as homegrown legends Andrey Arshavin, Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Konstantin Zyryanov among others.

Under the reign of head coach André Villas-Boas, Witsel and Zenit won the league in the 2014/2015-season, the Super Cup in 2015 and the Cup in the 2015/2016-season.

Toke Theilade is the former editor-in-chief at Russianfootballnews.com. He’s covered Russian and East European football since 2013 for various media outlets and been quoted in BBC, The New Yorker, TalkSport and ESPN among others. He’s currently founder and editor-in-chief at Rotoreviewer.com.