ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Three straight wins, seven goals and its top players with game time in their legs.
For Belgium, the group stage at the European Championship could hardly have gone better.
The world’s top-ranked team beat Finland 2-0 on Monday to finish in first place in Group B and join Italy and the Netherlands in qualifying with maximum points.
Finland finished in third place in its first appearance at a major tournament, nipped by Demark after its 4-1 victory over Russia in Copenhagen.
Finland, which would have finished in second place with a draw, fell behind in the 74th minute when a header from Thomas Vermaelen hit the post, rebounded onto the outstretched hand of Finland goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky and went over the line.
Romelu Lukaku collected Kevin De Bruyne's pass to score the other in the 81st for his third goal at Euro 2020.
Belgium will play one of the four third-place finishers in the round of 16 in Sevilla on Sunday.
The match in St. Petersburg was billed as the biggest in Finland’s history by its coach, Markku Kanerva, and some of the team’s fans were in tears during the pre-game national anthem.
A drummer in the section housing a throng of white-and-blue-clad Finland fans kept up the beat throughout the game and there was a huge roar when the halftime whistle was blown, with their team coping fairly comfortably.
Belgium hadn’t pushed too hard by then, knowing a draw guaranteed first place, but Hradecky did have to be alert to tip aside shots by Jeremy Doku and Eden Hazard early in the second half.
Lukaku thought he had scored in the 65th minute when he collected a pass from De Bruyne and slotted home a finish from 10 meters. But was ruled out after a video review by a marginal offside call.
A huge roar came from the Finland fans, many of whom threw bottles toward — but not onto — the field.
They were soon to be disappointed by the two goals Belgium scored.
Hazard, along with De Bruyne and Axel Witsel, made their first starts at the tournament after recent fitness issues.
Hazard and Witsel played the full game and De Bruyne was substituted in second-half stoppage time, during which period a woman ran onto the field of play before being quickly escorted away.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press