ST PETERSBURG: England manager Gareth Southgate admits the World Cup third-place play-off is a game that no team wants to play, but Saturday’s match against Belgium offers the chance to finish the tournament on a winning note.
A gut-wrenching 2-1 defeat to Croatia after extra-time at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday night denied England a shot at a second World Cup triumph, instead setting up a consolation game against familiar foes Belgium.
The two teams previously met in their final Group ‘G’ game in Kaliningrad when both had already guaranteed a place in the last 16 — with the twist that the side who finished second would land in the easier side of the draw.
Roberto Martinez switched nine players and Southgate brought in eight, a decision he described as a no brainer in the circumstances.
Belgium won 1-0 — through Adnan Januzaj’s goal — and were rewarded with games against Japan, Brazil and France while England played Colombia, Sweden and Croatia but the end result for both sides was the same — semi-final elimination. A similar scenario is likely at the Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg, with several fringe players pushing for a start.
“The honest thing is, it’s not a game any team wants to play in,” said Southgate, whose side has drawn praise for the way they have briefly united a country bitterly divided over Brexit.
However, he insisted that will not alter England’s approach as they look to achieve their best finish since they won the competition in 1966.
“We’ll want to give a performance of huge pride, there’s no question about that,” said Southgate. “Every time we wear the shirt of our national team we want to play with pride, we want to play well and we want to win.”
Reserve goalkeepers Jack Butland and Nick Pope are the only two members of England’s 23-man squad yet to feature in Russia, as Southgate stuck with the same line-up throughout the knockout phase.
For Belgium and their ‘golden generation’, many of the key players should return for the 2022 World Cup, even if Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen will probably be gone by then.
Martinez, who signed an extension until after Euro 2020 in May, can guide Belgium to the nation’s best result at the World Cup. They finished fourth in 1986.
“We want to finish on a high and these players deserve to finish on a high,” said the Spaniard coach. “You need to try to see the opportunity of finishing third at the World Cup. That doesn’t happen too often, so we need to understand that this is an important game.
“But I would accept it is very difficult when you had the ambition of getting to the final. It’s very difficult to prepare for the next game.”
European teams have claimed third place at the past nine World Cups. The Netherlands beat Brazil 3-0 in 2014 after the hosts were humiliated 7-1 by Germany in the semi-final.
England skipper Harry Kane is the tournament’s top scorer on six goals, while Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku trails by two in the race for the Golden Boot.
With one more goal Kane would become the highest scorer at the competition since 2002, when Ronaldo struck eight times, including twice in the final, as Brazil clinched a record fifth title.
The Tottenham Hotspur forward would be just the second England player to scoop the award, after Gary Lineker was the top scorer in 1986.
The third-place match was dropped from the European championship by UEFA following the 1980 tournament but has remained part of the World Cup calendar despite complaints. FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Both teams are in their second third-place match, Belgium having lost to France in 1986 and England to Italy four years later.
It tends to be a high-scoring fixture with each of the last four winners scoring three goals — Turkey in 2002, Germany in 2006 and 2010 and the Netherlands in 2014.
Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2018