Romping through the European Championship qualifiers, Belgium looked every bit the top-ranked team in world football and strong contender for its first major tournament title.
But some 18 months on, while it still tops the FIFA rankings, expectations for the finals have been cooled by a series of injuries to key members of the team.
When it plays Russia in its opening Group B game in St Petersburg on Saturday, 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 an injury-plagued season at Real Madrid, although he is much further along in being ready than the other two.
The absence of…