The importance of England’s final World Cup Group G clash, and how Gareth Southgate should accordingly handle the situation, remains open to interpretation. On the one hand, finishing top of the group will give real recognition to the hugely positive way England have started the tournament; on the other, the permutations of finishing second, within the context of the knockout rounds, appear far more beneficial than claiming top spot.
Likewise, while there is an obvious argument to maintaining momentum by beating one of the World Cup’s better fancied side after facing two countries who were never expected to advance from the group stage, there’s also an inevitable counter-argument – whether it’s really worth risking injury to key players if England have already qualified.
With that in mind, Football FanCast have one simple question for our experts – how many changes should Southgate make for England’s final Group G clash with Belgium on Thursday night?
“You’ll only ever hear me say this once so enjoy it – Roy Keane is spot on. The ITV pundit complained people are overcomplicating things and just to focus on winning the next match, and he’s absolutely right. Momentum is crucial in these tournaments, so making loads of changes and hoping for an easier path to the final would be truly bizarre. The exception to this of course being any players carrying a knock are not worth the risk now qualification is secured, but they should be focused on beating Belgium and nothing else.”
“Southgate must keep changes to a minimum – Roy Hodgson made five for the final group game of Euro 2016 and it stunted the feel-good factor from the last-gasp Wales win – so I’d make just the one, bringing in Danny Rose for the disappointing Ashley Young. Circumstances will dictate the feel of the match; how many changes Belgium make, where Brazil and Germany have finished in their groups, how Group H ends up – but much of that will only become clear very close to kick-off.
“I have no problem with England not winning the game and coming second in the group if that lines up a theoretically ‘easier’ knockout route, but Southgate can’t plan for that days in advance while so much is still up in the air.”
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“While Southgate could be tempted to rest most of his starting XI with qualification to the last 16 already guaranteed, I’m a firm believer that multiple changes and rotation are not a good thing – whether it be in club football or at international tournaments. England need to continue the momentum they are building and that means Harry Kane starts, Jesse Lingard starts and Kieran Trippier starts.
“That said, I would make three changes to the team that beat Panama so comfortably, with Dele Alli coming in for Ruben Loftus-Cheek in order to ensure he is ready for the knockout stages, Danny Rose in for the disappointing Ashley Young on the left, as well as an opportunity for Marcus Rashford to impress in place of Raheem Sterling alongside Kane.”
“We don’t know how Brazil – who have played well for a grand total of 20 minutes at this World Cup – will fare against a Serbia side who could relegate Brazil into second place. We don’t know how Germany will do in their final group game: they could still top their group, too.
“Imagine resting players in the hope of losing and avoiding Brazil and Germany only for results to surprise us, and for Brazil to come second in their group and Germany top theirs. In that scenario, Southgate would have halted his side’s momentum, ruined whatever confidence they’ve built up over the last week, and deprived his key players of competitive football for over a week in the build-up to a last 16 game which, in itself, certainly won’t be a cake walk.
“Trying to game the system by coming second is where things could yet go horribly, horribly wrong for this England side.”
“Even though both teams have secured qualification to the knockout rounds, Belgium will always be a very physical contest for England, particularly with the high number of individual Premier League battles. The risk of injury runs high, but I would still keep changes to a minimum as we have seen before what happens when a manager tinkers with his team during a tournament.
“This is England’s first real test and I would like to see how a strong line-up will fare against good opposition. That being said, I would give Rashford the nod instead of Sterling as we are too reliant on Kane’s goals and could well need another in-form striker further down the line, and Sterling has disappointed so far in the tournament.”