Belgium vs England – Saturday 14 July, 15:00 BST/16:00 CET/17:00 MSK – Saint Petersburg Stadium, St. Petersburg, Russia
The dreaded match that nobody wants to play: the spectacular setting of stadium and city is almost a haunting reminder of how close both sides have come to crowning a gifted group of players on the grandest stage of all. Belgium have never made it to a World Cup final before, their best performance coming with the gilded generation of Enzo Scifo and Jean-Marie Pfaff in Mexico ‘86 when they also made the last four. “That’s all they talk about in Belgium,” returning full-back Thomas Meunier told FIFA.com. “The players are fed up of it. But we’re about to write history in a whole new book.”
This time, they want to edge one shade better. “It’s like a final and we really want to beat them again,” Meunier added. “The English will be pumped up for it but I think we’re the better side.” The sheer quality at their disposal makes the prospect of this ambition being realised a very real one, with motivation being the key aspect. The group stage match in Kaliningrad, when England made seven changes to their starting lineup, was laced with undertones of an easier knockout stage path. Many of the same England players who featured then will likely reappear.
The semi-final defeat to France was viewed as an attacking juggernaut being squeezed out by a pragmatic machine by Belgian press and players. Atonement for what may well be perceived as a footballing injustice – “I’d rather lose with this Belgium than win with that France,” Eden Hazard said – so there is plenty of ammunition for the Red Devils. Meunier himself was devastated to have been suspended for the France semi-final, so will be determined to leave Russia on a high note.
In almost any other era this would be a requiem for England’s glorious failure, but this is different. There is a calm satisfaction with the Southgate era that is refreshingly settled. Gone is the sniping between players, fans and media, and in its place is an open channel of communication – demonstrated literally by the relaxed NFL-style media day ahead of the tournament – that has given an unusual backdrop of cohesion. For the opening 45 minutes of their semi-final against Croatia, England were in complete control and seemingly headed for their first final since winning their solitary World Cup on home soil.
Although he will almost certainly still end up with the Golden Boot, captain Harry Kane has been a subdued presence on the pitch in the last two matches. He has been deployed much deeper than usual to allow Raheem Sterling’s sharp turns of pace to unsettle defences, and although the pressure on his shoulders has been alleviated by the atmosphere around the camp, he has remained positive. “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,” he said after the Croatia defeat. “We are proud of what we’ve achieved, but we want more.
“We’re gutted, you know. We worked so hard. It hurts, it’ll hurt for a while, but we can hold our heads up high.” How high they will keep their heads in a meaningless match on paper might depend on the team selection. The aerobic fitness of the squad was tested in Moscow in midweek, so there will be chances given to fringe players such as Rashford and Alexander-Arnold. One feature that will trouble Belgium is the sheer pace of this youthful side, especially in attacking areas; what remains to be seen is how they will adapt to an entirely unique match.
Belgium vs England – Players to Watch
Romelu Lukaku #9 – Belgium (Manchester United)
The hulking Manchester United target man is well known to English players – as are half of his teammates, with eleven others also playing club football in England – so his direct goal threat will be nothing new. Stopping him, however, is another matter entirely. Lukaku has already scored an incredible 40 international goals by the age of 25, and in this World Cup, he is second only to England’s Harry Kane with four goals.
Trent Alexander-Arnold #22 – England (Liverpool)
With Kieran Trippier hobbling off in the exhausting semi-final defeat to Croatia a few days ago, it seems extremely likely that the Liverpool youngster will be given his first start of the tournament. His maturity this season to overcome early setbacks with defensive positioning on his way to earning a World Cup call-up has been astonishing. His obvious threat is his electric pace down the left flank, where Belgium have been playing Nacer Chadli or Yannick Carrasco, neither of whom are natural defensive players, and could be a key to unlocking the Belgian defence.
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Belgium vs England– 2-2 AET, England to win on penalties
Belgium vs England – Match Stats
- Belgium’s last appearance at this exact stage of a World Cup – a 4-2 extra-time thriller against France in 1986 – was the second-highest scoring 3rd place playoff ever
- Other than the effective dead rubber in the group stages of this World Cup, Belgium have only ever beaten England once, and that was 82 years ago
- Other than Panama, England are the only team to have failed to score against Belgium in this competition so far
- England’s squad is the second youngest at the tournament
- The Three Lions will mark their best performance since winning their home tournament in 1966 if they win
Belgium vs England – Possible Lineups
Courtois – Aldeweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen – Meunier, Dembele, Fellaini, De Bruyne, Carrasco – Batshuayi, Lukaku
Manager: Roberto Martínez
Pickford – Jones, Stones, Maguire – Alexander-Arnold, Loftus-Cheek, Dier, Delph, Young – Rashford, Kane
Manager: Gareth Southgate
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football, and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.