What promised to be one of the clashes of the entire group stage could now be a rather poor encounter as it’s become something of a dead rubber fixture. England and Belgium have both done their jobs early and secured qualification to the knockout rounds.
With an identical goal difference, they can still compete to be group G winners but that could be somewhat of a poisoned chalice as it will likely produce a much tougher route to the semi-finals. As it stands, both sides would probably be happy with a runner-up spot and both sides could now rest key men to protect them for the tougher games ahead.
In short, it’s a game that’s got bore draw written all over it, but you never know, there have been plenty of surprises at this World Cup and there will still be plenty of talent on display. Neither team will want to overexert themselves but that doesn’t necessarily mean this will be a woeful encounter – it just significantly increases the chances of that happening.
It’s good. In fact, these two have probably been the most impressive sides of the tournament so far. Pessimists will still point to the standard of the opposition for England but everybody faces the same standard of games and these two have done it better than anyone – with the exception of Croatia, perhaps.
England needed a late goal to beat Tunisia but overcoming adversity is something the Three Lions have struggled with in past tournaments. It was a character-building victory that England built on with their largest ever victory at a World Cup.
The 6-1 thumping of Panama got England hearts beating with hope with fans now split over whether to capitalise on this momentum or rest key players.
Belgium meanwhile comfortably won both of their fixtures, beating Panama 3-0 and then going on to thrash Tunisia 5-2. The Red Devils have looked very impressive with neither of their results really in doubt, but there is a concern of fatigue playing a factor in their World Cup hopes.
Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard have been the key duo who have delivered for Belgium so far. Lukaku has four goals whilst Hazard has two goals and an assist from their opening games.
England have won 15 of their previous 21 encounters with Belgium and have only been beaten twice by the Red Devils. The two sides haven’t met since 2012 though, and this is probably the greatest ever generation for Belgium. With many of their key stars in their prime, they’ve never been in a better position.
That 2012 side did have many parallels to the current crop though, with nine of Marc Wilmots’ starting line-up that day featuring in the current World Cup squad. England only had three starters that day who are at this World Cup, with one of those, Danny Welbeck, splitting the two sides with a solitary goal.
England also won the last encounter at a major tournament by the same scoreline with David Platt bagging the deciding goal deep into extra time at the 1990 World Cup in Italy to send the Three Lions to the quater-finals.
Dele Alli missed the Panama game for England after picking up a knock in the opening game. He should be fit to face Belgium but may be rested again as a precaution with Ruben Loftus-Cheek continuing to impress in place of him.
There’s also a lot of debate over whether or not Gareth Southgate should rest other key men with the result of this one ultimately irrelevant in terms of qualification to the knockout stages. Harry Kane has been outstanding in the opening two games for England and will be crucial to the team’s success, so it could be seen as an unnecessary risk to start him again whilst players like Marcus Rashford would relish the chance to impress.
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez has already hinted he could follow suit by resting key men to keep them fresh for the latter stages. Star striker Lukaku came off with a suspected ankle injury in their last game and will almost certainly miss this fixture.
England (3-4-1-2): Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Trippier, Henderson, Dier, Rose, Loftus-Cheek, Rashford, Kane
Belgium (3-4-2-1): Courtois, Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen, Meunier, Dembele, Witsel, Carrasco, Mertens, Hazard, Batshuayi
The biggest test for England in this game will be how that back three holds up against the Belgian frontline. Even if Hazard and Lukaku are rested there’s plenty of talent in that attack and they’ll surely be ready to come off the bench if required.
The only real concern for Southgate so far has been his defence. Not only did they concede in both games, but they also looked shaky on several instances. In both matches they gifted the opposition chances and against better sides, they’ll be punished for that kind of defending. Playing out from the back is all well and good, but not if it comes at the expense of cheap goals and England need to know when to put their foot through the ball.
Starting the same back three will give a good account of the kind of shape they’ll be in for the knockout rounds and with this game being a free hit they can afford to make those mistakes here and maybe shuffle the back line for the round of 16.
As for the game itself, it’s not likely to be a classic. Both sides have goals in them and if the teams are rotated those forwards will want to impress. Neither side wants to lose momentum but with one eye on the latter stages, caution will come before conviction and the group could be decided on fair play.
Prediction England 1-1 Belgium