ST PETERSBURG • Having romped through the Euro 2020 qualifiers, Belgium looked every bit the top-ranked team in world football and strong contenders for their first major title.
But some 18 months on, while they still top the Fifa rankings, expectations have been cooled by a series of injuries to key players.
When they play hosts Russia in their opening Group B game in St Petersburg today, Belgium will likely be without Kevin de Bruyne and Axel Witsel, and have captain Eden Hazard only on the bench.
De Bruyne suffered a double facial fracture in last month's Champions League final, Witsel is still making his way back from Achilles tendon surgery, and Hazard is not fully fit after two injury-plagued seasons at Real Madrid.
The absence of such a quality trio, essentially the heartbeat of the team, would be fatal to most.
But Belgium's considerable resources means Youri Tielemans could step into a leading role, after his FA Cup final heroics for Leicester last month.
"An intelligent playmaker who allows us to expand our attack but who is also very clever defensively. He lives up to all our expectations," said Belgium coach Roberto Martinez of the midfielder.
Up front, Romelu Lukaku comes into the tournament on the back of a leading role in Inter Milan's first Serie A title in 11 years and his hot form has shown no signs of abating after the striker extended his scoring record for the Red Devils to 60 goals in last Sunday's 1-0 friendly win over Croatia.
Belgium are confident of getting out of their group but it will be a tricky task once the tournament shifts into the knockout phase, especially since they are one of 15 teams who do not get to play in front of home fans.
Martinez's players have a heavy travel burden in the group stage - next they will fly to Copenhagen to take on Denmark on Thursday before returning to St Petersburg for their final group game against Finland on June 21.
"It is certainly a disadvantage we have to play away games and have to travel," Thomas Vermaelen said. "The other countries we play against play home games. That is a shame for us but we have to accept the situation as it."
Fellow defender Jan Vertonghen added: "I don't see us as the big favourites, but we are not far from it. The top favourites for me are France and England.
"But I do know that we can beat any country... I don't think any country wants to play against us. That first place in the world rankings shows that we are at our peak but we are not the big favourite."
While the travelling will not be ideal, Belgium are at least familiar with Russia, having done the double over them during the qualifying group stage.
The 2018 World Cup hosts qualified a distant second and goalkeeper Anton Shunin, who has the difficult task of filling the void left by the long-serving Igor Akinfeev, feels Belgium remain the group favourites despite missing personnel and taxing schedule.
"Yes, their team are strong, but we will make every effort to play well against them," said the Dynamo Moscow player.
Russia will need their towering striker Artem Dzyuba to impose himself while their five-man defence try to keep things tight to frustrate the guests.
However, the team suffered a blow yesterday after Zenit St Petersburg midfielder Andrei Mostovoy returned a positive Covid-19 test. Defender Roman Yevgenyev has replaced him.
BELGIUM V RUSSIA
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