Sport360 previews the third-place play-off between Belgium and England at World Cup 2018
A ‘Golden Generation’ remain without silverware and football isn’t coming home.
This is a fixture neither wanted to fulfil. But after agonising semi-final defeats, to France and Croatia respectively, one last challenge awaits at Saint Petersburg Stadium before flying home.
Here are the talking points:
REPEAT OF THE KALININGRAD CONTROVERSY?
A sense of familiarity defines this fixture.
Beyond the significant Premier League connection – all of England’s participants are home based and 16 of Belgium’s 23-man squad either play there now or have done in the past – the sides last met on June 28 at Kaliningrad Stadium when Group G wound down in quirky fashion.
This was a pre-season friendly masquerading as a competitive World Cup match. Both were already through to the round of 16 and knew victory would come at the cost of a far-more demanding route through the knockouts.
A combined 17 changes followed – nine for Belgium, eight for England – and ex-Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj adeptly curled in the only goal for the Red Devils.
Enthusiasm is again in short supply. Desolation defines both camps after Belgium’s 1-0 loss to France and Croatia’s come-from-behind, 2-1 extra-time triumph versus England.
Contrast now appears apparent, however, in how they choose to exorcise this deadened feeling.
“I am not going to make changes now to give certain players opportunities because they have already received them against England,” said boss Roberto Martinez, who spent 21 years in the United Kingdom as a player and head coach before joining Belgium in 2016.
Expect to see Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Co.
Opposite number Gareth Southgate’s appeared more amenable to widespread alterations.
He said: “I think a physical part of that is going to have a huge bearing.
“I would be really surprised if Kieran Trippier is out there, Ashley Young too. Jordan Henderson is also feeling his hamstring.”
Opportunity abounds, then, for the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Danny Rose and Eric Dier. Probably for Jamie Vardy and Fabian Delph, too.
In 2014, Brazil and the Netherlands made a combined eight changes from the last-four. England should come close to this tally on their own.
A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
Football’s grandest trophy will be lifted 24 hours later in Moscow, but a significant individual prize should be decided a day prior and more than 700 kilometres southeast.
England’s Harry Kane sits atop the scoring charts with six and is the overwhelming favourite for the hallowed Golden Boot. Belgium’s Lukaku, who is two strikes in arrears after a fine tournament, leads the chasing pack.
Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Paolo Rossi, Gary Lineker, Davor Suker and Ronaldo. All icons this pair will be looking to join.
Intriguingly, if selected, both will feel they have something to prove after the semi-finals.
Kane was twice denied in a matter of seconds by alert Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic at a critical juncture with England on top, but only one goal to the good.
Lukaku was swamped by Les Bleus’ outstanding centre-backs, plus starved by De Bruyne and Eden Hazard’s unusual wastefulness.
If the strikers have designs on gaining the Golden Boot, they’ll be desperate to start on Saturday. History points towards a goal-fest.
Since 1990, World Cup finals have averaged just 1.4 goals per game. This figure is nearly doubled to 2.7 during third-place play-offs in the same period.
France’s Just Fontaine also struck four times against West Germany in 1958’s gala match.
The race may still be on.
FOOTBALL’S MOST POINTLESS EVENT?
Instantly forgettable and of limited importance, the World Cup’s third-place play-off is football’s damned fixture.
Wounds from semi-final defeats are still gut-wrenchingly fresh for the 22 players who take to the pitch in Saint Petersburg, plus the audiences at home who watched their heroes come up agonisingly short only days prior.
At World Cup 2014, irrepressible Netherlands head coach Louis van Gaal aired the thoughts of many.
He said: “I think this match should never be played. I have been saying this for the past 10 years.”
Van Gaal’s dismissive feelings, however, are not ubiquitous, or universal. It can act as a ceremonial event.
Sweden smashed Bulgaria 4-0 in 1994 and returned to rapturous reception after their shock progress.
Thousands at Luton Airport greeted England four years previously, while Croatia icon Davor Suker elucidated the thoughts of millions of compatriots in 1998 who cherished success less than seven years since their declaration of independence.
He said: “For us, it was amazing to finish third ahead of some of the greatest teams in the world. It confirmed what a great World Cup we had and it was a nice way to finish.”
Victory on Saturday will generate an extra £1.5 million (Dh7.2m) in prize money. A windfall that can be spent on grassroots.
A consolation prize, but one that can have a real impact.