On paper, the final Group Stage clash of England’s World Cup campaign might seem like something of a dead rubber. Both teams have already qualified and won’t want to exert themselves too much on Thursday night with more important battles on the horizon. But in terms of making a statement to the rest of the countries involved in the competition, the coming encounter remains a significant one.
So, how will Gareth Southgate adapt his team accordingly? Which Belgium stars provide the biggest threat? How could the referee influence the match and can history tell us anything about which result to expect? Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the 7pm kickoff…
England have actually proved something of a bogey team for Belgium down the years, suffering defeat only once in proper competition – although the Red Devils did also claim a win in the little-known King Hassan II Cup back in 1998.
That being said, history can only take you so far and Belgium are much better fancied to make the latter stages of the World Cup, currently nine places ahead of the Three Lions in the FIFA rankings. They also enjoyed a slightly more dominant qualifying campaign, winning all of their Group C clashes and conceding just four goals – albeit two in incredibly unlikely fashion to Azerbaijan. England also qualified undefeated but drew with Slovenia and Scotland.
Belgium and England enter Group G on incredibly even footing. In fact, having both beaten Tunisia and Panama in surprisingly imperious fashion, the two nations head into the final game with the same number of points, same goal difference, same goals for and same goals against.
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The only differential is the disciplinary records, with the Red Devils suffering an extra yellow card. But should that balance out as Thursday night ends in a draw, the teams will have to draw lots to decide pole position. Curiously too, both countries enter their final Group G clash off the back of their biggest wins of the tournament so far, Belgium dispatching Tunisia 5-2 and England demolishing Panama in a 6-1 victory.
Due to the Premier League-based nature of both squads, England more than know about Belgium’s biggest threats – in fact, half of the team play with most of them at club level.
The most potent are Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, but because Belgium boast so much extra quality in attack – chiefly through Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku – the latter tends to be employed in a far less effective role, placed in a midfield two alongside Axel Witsel. Regardless of their undoubted talent though, England will feel familiarity with the Belgium team can act as something of a leveller.
Look away now England fans, because the name Skomina should sound familiar. The Slovenian was in charge for the Three Lions’ humiliating exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland – although he did at least award England a penalty during the 2-1 defeat – and also sent off Rob Green during a surprise 1-0 defeat to Ukraine back in 2009.
His only outing at the current tournament, meanwhile, was certainly eventful – sending off Colombia’s Carlos Sanchez for a handball after just three minutes and simultaneously awarding a penalty to Japan.
This match boils down to a risk assessment for Southgate. While he’ll want to keep momentum going by making a big statement heading into the knockout rounds, victory over Belgium isn’t really worth endangering key players – in fact, there’s an incredibly strong argument for trying to finish second in the group to avoid some of the competition’s heavyweights in the subsequent stages.
That being said, rumour has it Harry Kane will start on Thursday to continue his bid for the World Cup’s Golden Boot, but injuries and bookings could see Southgate make other changes. Perhaps the most important of those are at the back, with Harry Maguire a fitness doubt and Kyle Walker on a yellow card – another will see him suspended for the first knockout round. Chelsea captain Gary Cahill and Manchester United centre-back Phil Jones look set to come in for them respectively.
On both flanks too, Southgate will likely take advantage of the opportunity to freshen up, purely because wing-back is such a physically demanding position. Tottenham’s Danny Rose is a fantastic deputy at No.3, while Liverpool youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold clearly has a fan in the England gaffer. Dele Alli, meanwhile, could return to action to recover some sharpness after missing the Panama clash and we’re predicting United’s Marcus Rashford to partner Kane up front – replacing Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling.
In the engine room, a key role within this England setup, Eric Dier has been tipped to start ahead of Jordan Henderson.