Noth­ing to play for here? Think again


ST. PE­TERS­BURG, Rus­sia — How do you stay mo­ti­vated for the game no one wants to play? Eng­land and Bel­gium have dif­fer­ent an­swers.

Af­ter both were elim­i­nated in the World Cup semi­fi­nals, a once-in-a-life­time chance gone, the teams have to play again in to­day’s third-place game.

As al­ways in English foot­ball, coach Gareth South­gate and his men are look­ing back to the Eng­land team which won the World Cup in 1966. Beat­ing Bel­gium to­day would give Eng­land its best World Cup fin­ish since then, sur­pass­ing fourth place in Italy in 1990.

“We have a chance to win a medal at a World Cup, which only one English team has ever done, so there’s a lot of mo­ti­va­tion for us,” South­gate said yes­ter­day. Af­ter ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions by reach­ing the semi­fi­nal, only to lose 2-1 to Croa­tia in ex­tra time, Eng­land wants to keep its pos­i­tive buzz.

“None of us knows if that’s as good as it gets,” South­gate said. “We’ve raised ex­pec­ta­tion and I don’t see a prob­lem with that be­cause we’ve also raised be­lief. We’ve raised their en­joy­ment of play­ing. They now as­so­ci­ated play­ing for Eng­land with en­joy­ment, fun, and not be­ing un­der siege.”

For Bel­gium coach Roberto Martinez, it’s about leav­ing Rus­sia with a warm feel­ing and play­ing at­trac­tive foot­ball to in­spire the next gen­er­a­tion.

“We want to win. When you fin­ish a tour­na­ment you carry the feel­ing of the last game ... Every Bel­gian fan de­serves that win­ning feel­ing,” he said. “For us the way you play is es­sen­tial, not just for this tour­na­ment but for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

Third would be Bel­gium’s bestever World Cup per­for­mance. It fin­ished fourth in 1986 af­ter los­ing the play­off 4-2 in ex­tra time to France.

Both coaches have one eye on fit­ness for what will be each team’s sev­enth game in 26 days.

South­gate said he wants to make “as few changes as pos­si­ble,” but may need to switch some play­ers due to in­jury and ill­ness. He wouldn’t con­firm whether he’d give ei­ther of his re­serve goal­keep­ers, Jack But­land and Nick Pope, their first game of the tour­na­ment in place of Jor­dan Pick­ford.

“We need to have ev­ery­one fully fit on the pitch. There are play­ers who have played a lot of min­utes and we need to have that in mind,” Martinez said. “We’re go­ing to have the strong­est team on the pitch but maybe changes will need to be made.”

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