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Euro 2020 takes off as Wales battle to draw in Baku and Belgium enter fray

Paris (AFP) – Euro 2020 stopped off in Baku as Kieffer Moore earned Wales a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in their opening game on Saturday, following Italy’s impressive win to get the tournament underway in Rome the previous night.

In the first of three matches on Saturday Moore, the giant Cardiff City striker sporting a red bandage around his head, headed home in the 74th minute to cancel out Breel Embolo’s goal at the other end early in the second half.

“We showed a lot of character, like we always do, to fight back, be brave, get on the ball and get the equaliser,” Wales captain Gareth Bale told the BBC.

That result followed Italy’s 3-0 defeat of Turkey in the same Group A in the tournament’s opening game in Rome on an emotional Friday night, as Andrea Bocelli performed ‘Nessun Dorma’ in the Stadio Olimpico before Roberto Mancini’s side cruised to victory.

“There was an incredible emotion before the match, it was spine-chilling,” said Italy’s man of the match Leonardo Spinazzola.

A crowd of 16,000 watched that match, lending a noise and colour to the occasion not seen at football over the last year of games in empty stadiums due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Limited crowds are being allowed in to matches at the Euro, which is taking place in 11 cities spread all across the continent, from as far apart as Seville to Baku on the Caspian Sea, after being postponed a year ago because of the health crisis.

However, while crowds of up to 50 percent of capacity are being allowed into games in Azerbaijan’s capital, the stands were sparsely populated as Wales and Switzerland played out their game.

Later on Saturday Danish fans will hope to see their team get off to a winning start in the tournament as the 1992 European champions take on a Finland side making their debut at a major international competition.

In the same Group B Russia face Belgium in the last game of the day in Saint-Petersburg.

Belgium, the world’s top-ranked team, are among the leading contenders to win the month-long competition, but are without star man Kevin De Bruyne against Russia as the Manchester City playmaker continues to recovery from injury.

– Covid chaos –

Russia’s build-up to the Euro was hit when winger Andrei Mostovoy contracted the virus and was ruled out of the tournament just before its start.

He is one of a number of players to have tested positive for Covid-19, with Spain skipper Sergio Busquets out of their opening game against Sweden on Monday in Seville.

Busquets is still self-isolating at home after testing positive last weekend, which meant the team had to train individually this week and sit out a final warm-up game against Lithuania.

“All these things have made us stronger as a group. We see the light at the end of the tunnel now,” said Spain defender Diego Llorente on Saturday.

Nations have been allowed to name expanded squads of 26 players for the Euro instead of the usual 23 because of the virus.

Netherlands coach Frank de Boer left goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen out of his squad altogether following a positive virus test, meaning 38-year-old veteran Maarten Stekelenburg will play in Sunday’s match against Ukraine in Amsterdam.

“We all have to adapt to a special situation,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told AFP as he reflected on the difficulties of organising a pan-European competition during a pandemic.

– Advantage for England? –

Other leading contenders to win the Euro are preparing to begin their campaigns, including England who face 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia on Sunday.

England are playing all three group games at Wembley. If they top their group they will also play there in the last 16, while London is also the venue for both semi-finals as well as the final on July 11.

Croatia skipper Luka Modric admits that the situation could work in England’s favour.

“Everyone would say teams at home with a crowd, that there is a slight advantage,” Modric told the BBC.

England have drawn and beaten Croatia in the Nations League since that meeting and Modric admits Gareth Southgate’s side are a significant threat.

“I rate them very highly. For sure, they are one of the favourites for this tournament,” Modric said.

World Cup holders France — with Karim Benzema recalled from a five-and-a-half-year international exile — are the firm favourites to add the continental crown.

They begin their campaign against Germany in Munich on Tuesday, just after holders Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo backed up by a star-studded squad, play Hungary in the same Group F.

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