It’s not the final England wanted to reach, but it’s nonetheless a chance to bring a positive end to what has been a fantastic World Cup for the Three Lions. The significance of the playoff is always ambiguous, never really clear until both teams are on the pitch, yet England and opponents Belgium should be giving this a good go – it’s not as if their fans have become accustomed to reaching the semi-finals of major international tournaments.
But which manager is faced with the bigger injury problems? Can history tell us anything about this fixture? How could the referee influence the match and which route have both countries taken to reach this point of the tournament? Here’s everything you know before Saturday’s 3pm kickoff…
They’re not exactly old enemies but Saturday’s meeting will be the 23rd between Belgium and England, and curiously their second at this tournament alone. England lost last time out but have otherwise completely dominated this fixture down the years – before that, they’d lost just one of their previous 21 encounters with the Red Devils, winning a whopping 15 of them.
For both countries though, the World Cup playoff represents largely unfamiliar and disappointing territory. Belgium and England have been involved in this stage of the competition just once before apiece, in subsequent World Cups, and lost on each occasion. France beat Belgium 4-2 back in 1986, while one tournament later England suffered defeat to host nation Italy.
Belgium have every right to feel aggrieved to end up in the playoff rather than the final. Barring what was essentially a non-competitive encounter with England and a nightmare start to their Round of 16 clash with Japan, Roberto Martinez’s side have been pretty much dominant throughout the World Cup, their shining moment being a comprehensive win over Brazil.
But they just couldn’t repeat the feat against France, who take their place in the final instead. Nonetheless, Belgium have conceded less than a goal per game at this tournament, while scoring a whopping 14 – in fact, France’s backline is the only defence that’s managed to stop them so far. At no point have Belgium been forced to go to extra time or a penalty shootout, so physically and mentally they should be pretty fresh for Saturday.
England, meanwhile, could well end up losing to Belgium twice in the same World Cup which feels like some sort of record, although statisticians out there will probably prove us wrong. England’s only other defeat of course came against Croatia, in a match they started strongly but seemed to lose grip of the longer it went on.
The only other blotch on England’s form guide is the draw with Colombia, which went to a penalty shootout after Yerry Mina bagged a stoppage time equaliser. In fairness, it did exorcise the greatest curse in English football, but it also highlights how – despite facing arguably inferior opposition – the Three Lions have largely made tougher work of their knockout games at this World Cup than Belgium.
It’s been a busy World Cup for Alireza Faghani, and that only bodes well for a game in which neither side will likely take all that seriously. The Iranian has overseen three games so far in Russia and two of them were absolute crackers – Germany’s shock defeat to Mexico, followed by France’s 4-3 win over Argentina.
He has, however, handed out the most yellow cards of any referee to work at this World Cup, which is indicative of the kind of discipline he likes to instil on the pitch. Faghani would argue it’s working though; in three outings, he’s only been forced to issue one penalty – Marcos Rojo’s pathetic challenge on Kylian Mbappe – while ranking a modest 13th from the 28 World Cup referees for fouls per game and 19th for fouls per tackle.
All the omens point to an entertaining game that won’t be disrupted by pedantic blows of the whistle.
It’s difficult to predict how both managers will approach this game, but some changes seem inevitable – especially considering a handful of players absolutely run themselves ragged during the semi-finals. Martinez will want to win this game though and with that in mind, it seems more than likely Belgium’s front three will remain in tact – Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku are very much the driving force behind this Belgium side.
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In defence, the ever-in-need-of-protection Vincent Kompany looks set to make way for Dedryck Boyata, while Thomas Meunier will likely return from suspension following Martinez’s ill-fated attempt to turn Nacer Chadli into a flying right-back. Yannick Carrasco could take the opposite flank as well after having to settle for a spot on the bench against France.
In comparison to Martinez, who seems to have his whole squad still available to him, Southgate has some potential absences to contend with. Harry Kane, Kieran Trippier, Jordan Henderson, Kyle Walker and Ashley Young are all doubts heading into Saturday’s playoff. That should see Southgate ring the changes in pretty much all departments.
Dele Alli may just about keep his place, simply because he’s played a lot less football than Jesse Lingard this summer, but Chelsea youngster Ruben Loftus-Cheek is almost certain for a starting berth, while Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Tottenham’s Danny Rose should come in on either flank.
Many of Southgate’s selections will be giving a glimpse into the future, and perhaps the most significant of those will be Marcus Rashford. In the long-term he could well end up partnering Tottenham star Harry Kane, but for Saturday the Manchester United forward may well be asked to fill his injury void alongside Raheem Sterling.