When Belgium and England played last month to close out Group G, there was nothing on the line. Though third place at the World Cup may feel like little more than nothing, the teams will clash Saturday in St. Petersburg to complete their respective journeys in Russia.
The golden generation of Belgium has pride on the line, looking for its best World Cup finish after losing to France in the third-place match in 1986. Roberto Martinez’s team was on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline in Tuesday’s semifinal, also against France.
The counterattack that served the Red Devils so well in their knockout victories over Japan and Brazil was completely stifled by Les Bleus. Belgium, which entered the match with a World Cup-leading 14 goals, was limited to three shots on target as Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel had the side’s best chances on either side of halftime.
Romelu Lukaku, who is tied for second in the race for the Golden Boot with four goals, was starved of service up front and neutralized by France’s central defenders. While he did have an assist against Brazil, Lukaku has furthered a dubious reputation as a flat-track bully by failing to score in all three knockout matches after bagging his braces against Panama and Tunisia in group play.
“I’m proud of the way we performed and of our World Cup,” Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne told FIFA’s official website. “France maybe played a little defensively but the beauty of football is that you can choose the way you want to play. I respect that.
“We feel we’ve given our all and we need to focus on the positives. We’ve got just one wish now: to win a sixth match in Russia so we can go away on holiday even more at peace with ourselves.”
Coach Roberto Martinez, whose tactics succeeded against Brazil, faltered against France in opting for Mousa Dembele as Belgium sorely missed suspended wing back Thomas Meunier in the semifinals. Keeper Thibaut Courtois again did well between the sticks, finishing with four saves, and has made 12 in his last two matches after making 10 in his first four contests.
Of Martinez’s first-choice XI, at least five players could be making their final World Cup appearance, most notably talisman and central defender Vincent Kompany. Alderweireld, Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Jan Vertonghen also could all be marking their international farewell with this match, though all five could also be in Martinez’s plans for the 2020 European Championship.
As Belgium begins a cycle of transition to some of its younger players to build around the axis of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, England is looking to take one last positive from an overachieving World Cup experience. The Three Lions, the second-youngest team in terms of experience in Russia, have brought a renewed sense of optimism to a fan base that had come to expect — and endure — the worst over the past 20-plus years.
Gareth Southgate’s team has an incredibly quick turnaround following its heart-breaking 2-1 defeat in extra time to Croatia on Wednesday. Kieran Trippier gave the Three Lions the lead in the fifth minute with a sumptuous free kick, but the fearlessness of youth finally gave way to the nerves of the moment.
The lack of a true playmaking midfielder doomed England, who did not have a shot on frame for 94 minutes after Trippier’s goal. There was much for the Three Lions to rue in that short time frame after the final whistle Wednesday and kickoff Saturday as both Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard spurned chances with the opportunity to double England’s lead in the first half.
Then there were the split-second moments and decisions that led to Croatia’s two goals — Kyle Walker going too low on his headed clearance that allowed Ivan Perisic to score the tying goal in the 68th minute and John Stones’ brief lapse that let Mario Mandzukic ghost behind him for the match-winner 11 minutes from time.
Still, considering the low expectations England faced considering its 2014 group play exit and embarrassing loss to Iceland two summers ago in the round of 16 in the European Championships, this stirring run to the semifinals and an opportunity to play a seventh match at the World Cup was more than anyone could have projected.
“It shows we can be up there,” Kane said. “It shows we can win knockout games, it shows we can get to the semi-finals. It’s a great foundation we have built over the last couple of years with the gaffer, and we’ve just got to carry that on. We are proud of what we’ve achieved, but we want more. We’re sad that we couldn’t give the fans here and back home a Final.
“It’s tough. We’re gutted, you know. We worked so hard. I’m sure there was stuff we could have done better, but we worked as hard as we could. It hurts, it’ll hurt for a while, but we can hold our heads up high.
While the match gives both Martinez and Southgate another chance to again use their reserves as a reward working hard at practice, one regular who wants no part of the bench is England keeper Jordan Pickford. The Everton No. 1 was one of England’s top players in the knockout matches and wants his 11th cap.
“Hopefully I will get the nod against Belgium. I’d love to be the goalkeeper of the tournament,” Pickford told The Sun. “We came to win this tournament and we can’t do that now but we want to finish third. It will be a tough test against Belgium — again.
“It will be hard to get ourselves up for it. That’s where character comes in. It’s a chance to show our togetherness. We want to finish a great tournament on a high.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 18 — Belgium 3, Panama 0 (Mertens 47′, Lukaku 69′, 75′)
June 23 — Belgium 5, Tunisia 2 (Hazard 6′ (PK), Lukaku 16′, Bronn 18′, Lukaku 45+3′, Hazard 51, Batshuayi 90′, Khazri 90+3′)
June 28 — Belgium 1, England 0 (Januzaj 51′)
July 2 — Belgium 3, Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48′, Inui 52′, Vertonghen 69′, Fellaini 74′, Chadli 90+4′)
July 6 — Belgium 2, Brazil 1 (Fernandinho 13′ (og), De Bruyne 31′, Augusto 76′)
July 10 — Belgium 0, France 1 (Umtiti 51′)
June 18 — England 2, Tunisia 1 (Kane 11′, Sassi 35′ (PK), Kane 90+1′)
June 24 — England 6, Panama 1 (Stones 8′, Kane 22′ (PK), Lingard 36′, Stones 40′, Kane 45+1′ (PK), Kane 62′, Baloy 78′)
June 28 — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)
July 3 — England 1, Colombia 1 (Kane 57′ (PK), Mina 90+3′) (England wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 7 — England 2, Sweden 0 (Maguire 30′, Alli 59′)
July 11 — England 1, Croatia 2 a.e.t. (Trippier 5′, Perisic 68′, Mandzukic 109′)
It’s uncertain whether Martinez will overhaul his lineup for this match considering he already did in the group match. The hedge is he will at least give Lukaku a chance to try and catch Kane for the Golden Boot and include him in the starting XI. That leads to the belief Belgium’s primary attacking trio of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard will be out there at the start.
Meunier likely will be restored to the starting lineup since he’s the freshest player of either team after serving his yellow-card ban in the quarterfinals. It would not be surprising to see Dedryck Boyata in central defense, but the hedge is Martinez will use this match as a farewell for his stars.
Southgate will probably have a mix of his starters and substitutes, though Trippier is almost certain to miss this match after having suffered a lower-body injury in the final minutes of extra time in the loss to Croatia. It’s also possible Eric Dier could start in central midfield after Jordan Henderson ran himself into the ground in five of the six matches for the Three Lions.
Like Lukaku, there is an expectation Kane will at least be out there for the start to let him try and hunt out a seventh goal that would set an England record at a single World Cup. The one area of intrigue would be playing youngsters Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold together again like Southgate did in group play.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
Meunier is available after serving his one-match ban, and while it is not definite, Trippier is likely the only person on either side who is not expected to play due to his injury. England striker Jamie Vardy was fit enough to play the final eight minutes after missing the Colombia match with a groin injury.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Belgium — Romelu Lukaku (F)
After a frustrating match against France, Lukaku has one last chance to pip Kane for the Golden Boot. His assist against Brazil secured the Silver Boot since he is the only player among fellow four-goal scorers Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). If Lukaku fails to score in this match, France’s Antoine Griezmann could claim second with a goal since he has two assists.
England — Jordan Pickford (GK)
Pickford came to Russia with just four caps and plenty of question marks. He will leave this World Cup as a world-class keeper and full of confidence ahead of returning to Everton for the upcoming Premier League season. Only France’s Hugo Lloris has had a better overall run in the knockout stages between the sticks, and Pickford has answered the call in crucial moments time and again for the Three Lions.
The fact he wants to start this match bodes well for Southgate as Pickford wants a stranglehold on the No. 1 shirt as England begins its next cycle — the 2020 European Championships.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
1954 (Switzerland) GS — England 4, Belgium 4 a.e.t. (Anoul 5′, Broadis 26′, Lofthouse 36′, Broadis 63′, Coppens 67′, Anoul 71′, Lofthouse 91′, Dickinson 94′ (og))
1990 (Italy) R/16 — England 1, Belgium 0 a.e.t. (Platt 119‘)
2018 (Russia) GS — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)
Belgium’s victory in Kaliningrad last month was just its third in 22 all-time matches (3-4-15) versus England and its first in three World Cup matches (1-1-1). The previous two World Cup matches came in 1954 and 1990 — the first being a wild 4-4 draw in group play in Switzerland in which an own goal by England’s James William Dickinson in the 94th minute was the equalizer.
The teams meet again in Italy 36 years later, with England winning 1-0 after extra time in the round of 16 as David Platt’s superb volley on a free kick from Paul Gascoigne in the 119th minute spared the Three Lions potential misery in penalties.
Per Ladbrokes, Belgium is a firm favorite with 23/20 odds, while England is listed as a 9/4 underdog. Bettors do not seem too keen on the match ending in a draw and going to penalties as the listed odds are 27/10.
Punters are also expecting goals in this contest as two and three-goal totals are joint-favorites at 3/1, and a four-goal outcome is listed at 4/1. For first goal-scorers, Kane nudges out Lukaku as favorite with 10/3 odds, while Lukaku is 4/1. Michy Batshuayi is third on the list at 9/2 odds while Hazard and Vardy are joint-fourth at 11/2.
It’s the match nobody wants to play yet both Belgium and England will be keen on exiting Russia on an up note. It is the first rematch in a World Cup since 2002, when Brazil beat Turkey in the semifinals after doing so in group play. It is the fifth time overall since 1962, with Brazil involved in three previous instances.
Everything about predicting what could happen in this match is a crapshoot give the emotional hangover of losing a World Cup semifinal, more so for England considering the Three Lions have a shorter turnaround and had the more excruciating defeat by losing in extra time.
You expect professionalism on both sides, and with so many players familiar with one another playing in England’s Premier League, there should be enough motivation to avoid being needled on the club training grounds to put forth such an effort. In the last third-place game in 2014, host Brazil’s hangover from its 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany most certainly carried into its 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands.
Last month’s group stage closer saw 17 of the 22 starters on the bench for the opening kickoff. It would seem likely that number will be significantly less while still operating with a noticeable mix of holdovers and reserves.
At the very least, the hope is both teams pick out their star strikers to try and help their cause to win the Golden Boot. Both Kane and Lukaku were spectators in Belgium’s 1-0 victory, and while Kane may be the more tired of the pair given his 120-minute effort versus Croatia, the Three Lions talisman undoubtedly will give it his all should Southgate ask him to lead the line.
In the end, though, look for Belgium to aggressively pour forward and while England may have more opportunities to counter than it did in last month’s 1-0 loss, it may also be picked apart more by a higher-quality Red Devils side.
PREDICTION: Belgium 3, England 2
England’s first Nations League match will be at home against Spain on Sept. 8, while Belgium’s first match in the new UEFA set-up will be Sept. 11 at Iceland.