With maximum points enough to qualify for the last 16 with a game to spare, Roberto Martinez’s men can now secure first place in Group B with either a draw or a victory, while their Finnish counterparts must win to ensure progress.
Living up to their pre-tournament status among the favourites, Belgium have strode to successive away victories over Russia in Saint Petersburg and then Denmark in an emotionally-charged Copenhagen last time out.
A top-class cameo display from Kevin de Bruyne inspired his side to reverse an early deficit at the Parken Stadium, as fans and players paid tribute to stricken midfielder Christian Eriksen, who continues to recover from his mid-game cardiac arrest last weekend.
In beating the Danes 2-1 last Thursday, the Red Devils became the first team to come from behind to win at this edition of the Euros; stretching their perfect record in the competition – qualifiers included – to 12 wins out of 12. In fact, they have now won 21 of their last 25 matches altogether, with the only defeat in that time coming at Wembley in the Nations League last October.
Given recent runs to the latter stages of major competitions for the current ‘golden generation’, reaching the final for the first time since 1980 – when they lost 2-1 to West Germany in Rome – remains the goal of the most experienced squad at these Championships.
A multi-talented selection, which now contains five players with 100 or more caps, will come into their third and final group stage fixture amid familiar surroundings. Their fifth match in St Petersburg during the past three years sees them back on the Krestovsky Stadium turf as strong favourites to top their group – thereby securing a last-16 clash with one of the third-place finishers.
Though Martinez and company lost to France there in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, they recovered to beat England in the third-place play-off four days later, before later seeing off Russia in the picturesque port city on two separate occasions – a 4-1 win in their faultless qualifying campaign and last week’s 3-0 canter on Group B’s dramatic opening night.
On their debut in the European Championship – in fact their first appearance at any men’s major tournament at all – Finland’s fortunes have been mixed so far, but hope remains high that they can emulate near neighbours Iceland’s run to the knockout stages in 2016.
Their second successive match in St Petersburg – after they lost what was effectively an away game to Russia last time out – will see them take the field in their favoured role: as unfancied underdogs with plenty of bite.
Though the Finns followed their controversial 1-0 win against Denmark with a defeat by the same scoreline, they are level with the Russians on three points going into the final round.
Therefore, Markku Kanerva’s men will go through with a win – or even a draw if Russia lose to Denmark in the other Group B fixture, to be played concurrently. In an improbable dream scenario, Finland would actually top the group if they manage a famous win over Belgium and Russia fail to take maximum points.
Undoubtedly, the gulf in class between the Eagle-owls and their next opponents is significant, but there has been little between the teams in their 11 meetings to date. Perhaps surprisingly, Finland have posted four wins to Belgium’s three and are unbeaten in seven matches against the Red Devils since a 6-1 loss in October 1968.
Chief carrier of their hopes on Monday evening will once more be Norwich City frontman Teemu Pukki, who scored 10 of his nation’s 16 goals in qualifying – being involved in nearly 70% of their strikes on the road to the finals.
However, Pukki has yet to get off the mark this summer, as it was fellow striker Joel Pohjanpalo’s match-winning header against Denmark that made him the first Finnish footballer to score at a major tournament. In all, that was his 10th international goal and a third in as many games, meaning that the Union Berlin man has now scored all of Finland’s last three goals.
The pair’s input will be vital if the Finns are to upset the odds and claim victory on Monday, particularly as their opening success – amid highly unusual circumstances – is the only win they have managed from their last eight matches; a sequence incorporating five defeats.