Tomorrow’s game between Belgium and England in the city of Kaliningrad is the final match in the Group stage of the Football World Cup, and the result will deliver the final piece of the puzzle determining the draw for the knock-out stages of the competition. The match will decide who finishes top of the group, and who will take second place; it will automatically set the next opponents for both teams in the last 16. As things presently stand, this looks likely to be either Japan or Colombia.
The intentions of the respective managers will be clear when the team line-ups are announced; if they make few changes to their last selection, then we can look forward to a fast attacking game. If there are some tactical changes to rest their top stars with a view to avoiding burn-out or injury, then the game may be more defensive and less entertaining. But it is unlikely that Belgium and England will rest on their laurels, and play a tactical game in order to just secure second place.
Both teams have already qualified for the last sixteen of the competition; they are equal on points and on goal average, neither side having really been tested yet by their earlier opponents. Both sides have scored scintillating goals; both have displayed serious weaknesses in defence. Belgium start as the bookies favourites with odds of 5:4, and they are studded with exciting stars who play for the best teams in the English Premier League. England start with betting odds of 4:5. They each know their opponents very well, most players having met in the English domestic league many times, and it promises to be an intriguing duel. In theory it could even prove to be a preview of the world cup final as in theory they could both see one another again the final of the competition. The strikers from both teams are the top scorers in the competition so far, Harry Kane for England and Romelu Lukaku for Belgium.
Belgium has not yet in the history of the cup reached the final, and England has only been a finalist once 52 years ago when they lifted the trophy against Germany in 1966. Since then the English have experienced an agonising series of famous near misses in the world cup, with many infamous controversies, including the “hand of god” incident against Argentina, and losing several penalty shoot-outs after extra time. Their manager Gareth Southgate has personally experienced the humiliation of missing a penalty in a world cup match, and has so far in the competition shown great charisma and empathy with his players; he understands all too well the pressures they face. The Belgian Manager Roberto Martinez has also led his squad admirably so far, and is showing himself to be a very capable professional. Controversial fouls and refereeing errors are unlikely in this competition, thanks to the introduction by FIFA of goal line technology and video assisted refereeing, which have become new features of the modern game.
The England-Panama game drew an estimated 14 million TV viewers in England alone, and the numbers watching the Belgium-England game will be higher. But an interesting feature for viewers in Belgium for this game is that many people in the expat community find themselves with split loyalties and have difficulties in deciding which team to support.
Both teams play very attractive football, and it would be great to hope that whatever the score in tonight’s match, it will turn out to be a friendly entertaining warm up contest, and that we get the chance to see them both again on 15th July at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow for the World Cup Final.