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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Belgium has already qualified for the knockout stage of the European Championship so the world's top-ranked team will be taking it easy in its final group match against Finland.
Not so fast.
The Finns’ hopes for a somewhat easier ride as they go for an unlikely spot in the last 16 themselves have been foiled by team news emerging from the Belgian camp over the last few days.
Imagine the reaction from Finland coach Markku Kanerva and his players to hearing that Belgium is planning to start three of its top players — Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel — for the game in St. Petersburg on Monday.
That first-choice striker Romelu Lukaku could keep his place in the team so he can stay in the hunt to be top scorer at the tournament.
That the experienced trio of Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Alderweireld will make up a strong-looking central defense.
In short, there’ll be no let-up from the Belgians.
“We’re here to try to be as good as we can,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said, “and that means you have to try to win every game.”
While it will be a late decision on Lukaku — much will depend on how he has recovered from playing the full game in the 2-1 win over Denmark on Thursday — Martinez has made it clear the match against Finland will be important to gauge the fitness of De Bruyne, Hazard and Witsel after their recent fitness problems.
All three were second-half substitutes against Denmark and De Bruyne, in particular, showed no ill-effects after having minor surgery on facial injuries sustained in last month’s Champions League final. A goal and an assist by the Manchester City midfielder secured the win that assured Belgium of a place in the round of 16.
“The coach, before Denmark, told me he wanted me to be a sub and come in, and then get rhythm by starting against Finland,” De Bruyne said Saturday. “At this moment, that’s ideal for me.”
It’s not quite so ideal for Finland.
A draw should be enough to advance, potentially as the second-place finisher in Group B, after collecting three points from a 1-0 victory over Denmark.
Losing by the same score against Russia on Wednesday left qualification in the balance but it is a position the Finns would definitely have taken if they had been offered it ahead of their first appearance at a major soccer tournament.
“We all know the quality of the Belgium team,” Kanerva said, “and are well aware that we are facing a really tough task.”
Finland and Russia both have three points. And both could be overtaken by the Danes if they beat Russia and Finland loses against Belgium.
Teemu Pukki, Finland's standout player, should be fit to start up front for a third straight game after being brought off in the 76th minute against Denmark and the 75th minute against Russia. Pukki entered the tournament having just returned from an ankle injury.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press