It’s the game nobody wants to play in, and yet it could still result in England’s second-best ever finish at a World Cup, only trumped by the triumph of 1966. Indeed, after crashing out of the semi-finals at the hands of a wily Croatia team, England now face Belgium for the second time this summer in the third-place playoff.
A bronze finish to this tournament, while meaningless in the eyes of many, would give material acknowledgement to not only a series of impressive Three Lions performances but also how Gareth Southgate’s side have captured the imaginations of English football fans once again.
Sharing their thoughts and predictions, for the final time this summer, are Football FanCast’s heart-broken, England-loving duo Sam Preston and Editor-in-Chief James Jones…
There’s genuine ambiguity heading into Saturday’s 3pm kickoff, because the third-place playoff always seems to mean something a little different to every country involved. For some, it’s the chance to end a strong World Cup campaign on a high; for others, it’s an utter nuisance – an obligatory box that needs to be ticked before the players are officially allowed to jet home and cry their eyes out for a few weeks.
How much importance are you attaching to Saturday’s playoff?
James: “I think there should be an element of importance attached to it otherwise, what’s the point? If you’re having to play a part in this game then it’s because you’re part of the best four teams in the tournament and have the opportunity to finish third. I see no reason why either side wouldn’t want to win this game. End the tournament on a high, as both have had very good tournaments.”
Sam: “Unfortunately, in contrast to the prospect of a historic appearance in the World Cup final, it’s hard not to view this match as utterly meaningless. Trying to put a positive spin on it, it gives England an opportunity to beat an elite nation and gives the country one last chance to cheer on a team that has given them an incredible summer.”
And with that in mind, would you stick to England’s strongest starting XI or give others the chance to impress?
Sam: “Half the side looked out on their feet by the end against Croatia with Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Harry Kane all struggling. Anyone carrying a knock or ‘in the red’ physically should absolutely sit this one out and players who have had very little game-time such as Danny Welbeck, Gary Cahill and Phil Jones could come in to provide fresh legs.”
James: “I think we can expect to see Southgate make a number of changes to his team, mostly to give game-time to those who perhaps haven’t been involved much up to this point. I’d still give Kane a start though – he’ll be gutted if he’s dropped and Lukaku scores a hat-trick to take his Golden Boot. Just imagine that.”
With England’s World Cup campaign officially ending on Saturday, it’s time to reflect on what have been some fantastic performances at the tournament, especially against the likes of Sweden and Tunisia. While it’s clear England wouldn’t have got anywhere near the semi-finals without performing so well as a collective, some individuals have really stood out as well.
Who has been your player of the tournament?
James: “Trippier is certainly up there, while Jordan Pickford in goal has been absolutely brilliant. If I’m honest, I find it hard to pick a single name out – they’ve all played their part in a historic World Cup for England.”
Sam: “Trippier, for me. I thought moving Kyle Walker to centre-back would rob England of attacking thrust down the right but Trippier has been exceptional. His energy has been outstanding, nobody has got the better of him one-on-one and his delivery both from set-pieces and in open play has been sublime. Honourable mentions to Harry Maguire and Pickford as well.”
Back to the Belgium clash. England’s last meeting with the Red Devils showed there really isn’t much to choose between both nations’ second strings, but the gap between their strongest starting XIs – on paper, at least – seems significantly greater. That being said, the sheer familiarity between these two sets of players, nearly all of whom play for Premier League clubs, could act as something of a leveller on Saturday.
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Where will this game be lost and won?
Sam: “With Lukaku and Kane both chasing the Golden Boot, if one or both of them start the game then it may be a case of who can outscore the other. That’s the only motivation I can see for anyone to elevate themselves above a walking pace for this one.”
James: “Like I said the last time we played Belgium – I think it’ll come down to who wants it more on the day. There’s no guarantee either side will be too bothered about the outcome despite the chance to be named the ‘third best team in the world’ – it’s a title neither side has had the pleasure of boasting before. If Kane and Lukaku both start then I envisage bit of a selfish battle to see who can score the most on the day – could be fun to watch.”
And finally chaps, for the last time this summer, let’s hear your score predictions…
James: “If both sides play their reserves like they did in the group stage clash then Belgium will probably win. I’m going to go 1-1, England to win on penalties. There’s something quite attractive about watching England take part in a World Cup penalty shoot-out that no one really cares whether they win or lose. Bring the bronze football home, lads.”
Sam: “I honestly have no idea. We’ve somehow managed to engineer two meaningless games against the same team within a seven-game tournament, which is quite something in itself. I’ll say 3-2 with Danny Welbeck to get the winner, in the hope that it’s worth watching.”