Eng­land are driven to be the WC’s third wheel

Bel­gium play-off

Sport360 - - Front Page - By Matt Mon­aghan @mattmon­aghan360 mattmon­aghan@sport360.com

A ‘Golden Gen­er­a­tion’ re­main with­out sil­ver­ware and foot­ball isn’t coming home. Bel­gium and Eng­land meet on Satur­day with the third place con­so­la­tion prize up for grabs at World Cup 2018. 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-frombe­hind, 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 Alexan­derArnold, 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 semi­fi­nals.

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 third­place 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.

Oc­cu­pa­tional Haz­ard: Eden in ac­tion.

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