England go into their final Group G game with Belgium in Kaliningrad needing a win to secure qualification from first place and send out a message to rivals at Russia 2018.
If there have been two teams who have mirrored each other this tournament, it would perhaps be England and Russia. Little was expected of either, but both have had successes that have parallelled each other as much as they have exceeded those expectations.
Russia’s opening day win, a 5-0 thumping of Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium, alleviated fears of many Russians that their national team would freeze with stage fright on their big screen debut.
The hosts followed that win up with a qualification-sealing 3-1 win versus Mohamed Salah’s Egypt in a game in which many fancied the Liverpool man to single handedly destroy Russia’s equally ageing and inexperienced backline.
England recorded their own wide win against World Cup first-timers Panama, opening the floodgates against the Canal Men in a 6-1 win to smash a handful of their own records and join Russia as the only team to win by a five goal margin in the tournament so far.
It followed an opening game win over Tunisia, grasped by captain Harry Kane in the final moments of a volatile game in Volgograd. England were forced to battle for every blade of grass in that game, but came through with a win that helped ensure qualification with one game to spare.
While most of the country have allowed themselves to believe that “Football’s coming home”, a nod to their belief they will win the World Cup once more, they must go into their final group game with Belgium ensuring that confidence does not turn into complacency.
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Russia rode a wave of conviction into their final group game against Uruguay in Samara, but a toothless display against Luis Suarez and co. resulted in a 3-0 defeat, and suddenly hopes of advancement further than the ensured last 16 stage disappeared.
England must be careful not he tread the same path and fritter away the careful work of manager Gareth Southgate in assembling a side seemingly fearless of opponents, and focussed on their job to advance as far in the competition as possible.
The Three Lions sit top of Group G going into the game, needing only a draw to advance from top spot against Belgium in Kaliningrad. First place would book a meeting with Japan in Rostov-on-Don in the last 16, while second spot would ensure a date with Colombia in Moscow.
Anything less than a solid result against Belgium, however, will destroy any hopes already built by the players, who are eager to dispel any doubt in the national side that has gathered since an embarrassing group stage exit in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, followed up by a shock exit to Iceland in the European Championships two years ago.
Skipper Harry Kane, currently the tournament’s top scorer with five goals, has mentioned the pride of the players in each other and the belief in the dressing room. That was evident in their late win against Tunisia despite some rough treatment through the 90 minutes, Kane perhaps the recipient of the brunt of that.
Although Kane will play no part against Belgium as Southgate already has one eye on the knockout stages, that pride should see a side free of the shackles the England press so regularly fastens onto its national side, playing for a win in Kaliningrad.
Players such as Jordan Henderson, who covered more than 10 km against minnows Panama, are happy to take on the role of unsung hero in the centre of midfield, and free up space for flair players such as Jesse Lingard. The performances of the Manchester United man, who netted in that same game, have been described as “top” by his national manager.
Wingbacks Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier will be expected to keep the pace against lightning quick Eden Hazard in England’s 3-5-2 formation. Both will probably breathe a sigh of relief that Kevin De Bruyne is afforded only a place on the bench.
Marcus Rashford will come in for Kane against Belgium, who have their own change up front with Michy Batshuayi coming in for Romelu Lukaku. Rashford will add extra spark and an eagerness to perform, having accumulated only 22 minutes of World Cup football at the 2018 tournament.
England will be looking to top a World Cup group for a sixth time in their history. First place finishes were achieved in 1966, 1982, 1990, and 2006, all coming after their first ever first place finish in 1954 in Switzerland.
If England are looking for omens, Belgium finished bottom of that very same group. Will history repeat itself in Russia, or will belief overstretch into complacency and lead to another England disaster in a major tournament? Time will tell.