Wales and the world’s top-ranked team Belgium begin their Euro 2020 bids on Saturday after the delayed tournament finally kicked off with victory for an impressive Italy side on an emotional night in Rome.
Wales vs Switzerland
In Baku, up to 31,000 fans will be able to attend Saturday’s first game, when Wales – semi-finalists at Euro 2016 in France – take on the Swiss in Group A with Gareth Bale wearing the captain’s armband.
“It’s going to be a massive honour to lead your country out in a major tournament. It’s going to be one of the highlights of my career,” Bale said.
“I’m looking forward and I’m excited. The team talk will come naturally to me in the huddle tomorrow,” he said.
Switzerland have a more consistent past in reaching finals but have failed to get further than the last 16 in their previous three tournaments – the 2014 and 2018 World Cups and Euro 2016.
“We have high expectations from ourselves and also from our public,” captain Granit Xhaka said.
“We proved we can make it, this time we don’t want to talk, we want to do it, and achieve it,” he added.
The pair will compete with Italy and Turkey for a place in the last 16, in just their third appearance at a major tournament.
“We know the qualities of Italy, being such a big nation with such a history. Switzerland are a top 10 ranking team in the world,” Bale said.
“Turkey have proven over the last 12 months because they’ve beaten some big teams as well.
“It’s difficult to say who the favourite is. I don’t think one stands out,” he added.
Recently Bale has found it difficult scoring for his country, who are 17th in the FIFA rankings, and is without an international goal since October 2019.
Despite his barren run of 11 matches in the red shirt he finished the club season with six goals in as many Premier League games while on loan at Tottenham from Real Madrid.
“I feel good, very sharp, I feel ready to go,” he said.
“I scored quite a few goals in the last three to four months of the season and I felt the performances were getting better and better each time.
“I’ve timed my fitness to perfection hopefully and I can continue that in the tournament,” he added.
This weekend, Xhaka will face former Arsenal team-mate Aaron Ramsey, who left the Emirates Stadium for Juventus in 2019.
“I don’t see too much danger on Saturday. If we focus and play as we want then there’s no danger,” Xhaka said.
“We have huge respect for Wales. A lot of their players play abroad, in the Premier League, who I have played alongside like Aaron Ramsey, who is a very skilful player,” he added.
Denmark vs Finland
That match, at 1300 GMT, will be followed by Denmark’s clash with Finland in Copenhagen in Group B.
Denmark, European champions in 1992, will be spurred on by 16,000 of their own fans against Finland.
Kasper Hjulmand, the Denmark coach, said his side “dared to dream big” as they prepare to face a Finland team making their major tournament debut.
Coach Hjulmand, 49, was not fazed when asked whether he thought his team could go all the way.
“We are comfortable and we believe in ourselves,” Hjulmand told reporters.
“We do dare to dream big but we also know that there are bigger countries out there with better opportunities to win it all. So our first aim is to progress from the group and then everything can happen.
“It’s football and in one game everything can happen. But first and foremost it’s the first game against Finland and we’ll do our best to try and get a good start. From there, as I said, everything can happen.”
Key to Denmark’s success will be playmaker Christian Eriksen, who comes into the Euro after a turbulent season at Inter Milan when he won last season’s Serie A title but also spent long periods out of departed coach Antonio Conte’s team.
“I think it wouldn’t matter where I’ve come from in the last 18 months. Every tournament is special, no matter where I’ve come from,” said the 29-year-old.
“I’m not looking backwards, I’m looking forwards to this tournament and to playing in the Euros.
“How things are seen from the outside and I feel about them may be completely different. If it (the Euro) had been seven months ago I would have still been very confident going into the tournament.”
Finland forward Teemu Pukki said that he was ready to fire Finland forward in their first ever match in a major tournament after shaking off an ankle injury he picked up at the end of the Championship season with his club Norwich City.
“I’ve been training normally for the last week and a half. I also played 30 minutes in the last preparation game and I haven’t had any issues with the ankle,” said Pukki, who has scored 30 goals for his country.
“I feel in normal shape and I’m ready to play as much as the coach will allow me.”
Finland qualified for the Euro alongside Italy but are the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament and will have a battle to make it out of a group that contains two strong teams in Saturday’s opponents and Belgium.
“The whole Finnish football has been waiting for this moment for a long time, and making our way here has already given us plenty of motivation for tomorrow,” Pukki added.
Belgium vs Russia
Belgium, one of the leading contenders, face Russia in Saint-Petersburg in Saturday’s late match but Roberto Martinez’s team will be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who is still recovering from the facial fractures he suffered playing for Manchester City in the Champions League final.
The Manchester City midfielder stayed behind in Belgium when Roberto Martinez’s side travelled to Russia, but he hopes to be ready for the team’s second Group B match next Thursday.
“I am aiming to be ready for the game against Denmark,” De Bruyne told Uefa.com.
The 29-year-old suffered the injuries from a tackle by Chelsea defender Antonio Ruediger in Porto last month.
De Bruyne had to be substituted and watched on as his City teammates lost 1-0.
Belgium will also be without Borussia Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel on Saturday as he too stayed behind to focus on recovering from Achilles tendon surgery.
The Red Devils, the world’s top-ranked team, beat Russia twice in qualifying, but Martinez says they will not take their opponents lightly.
“I agree that the first game is often the most difficult in a big tournament,” said the Spanish coach.
“You have to get into the tournament both mentally and physically.
“It’ll be a real test tomorrow, because we know this team very well, but they also know us by heart and they’ll have the support of their fans.”
Russia will be hoping to make their mark in a group also featuring a strong Danish outfit and major tournament debutants Finland.
Their coach Stanislav Cherchesov, who led them to the 2018 World Cup quarter-finals on home soil, believes Russia can take heart from their recent meetings with Belgium, which also included a 3-3 friendly draw in 2017.
“Belgium have 18 players who played in the World Cup in 2018. They’re obviously a strong team,” he said.
“We’ve played them three times over the past few years and all of the games were really entertaining. We have to play to our maximum tomorrow to succeed.”
(With AFP inputs)
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