FIFA World Cup 2018: Not only pride but individual honours also at stake in Belgium vs England third place play-off

One statistical quirk of the World Cup is that no Premier League player has ever won any of the three top individual awards of football’s quadrennial gala – Golden Ball, Golden Boot, Golden Glove. That, however, stands to change after Sunday’s title showdown with as many as 40 Premier League-based players still involved, a welcome change for the league which often portrays itself as the world’s best domestic league but one which, until now, has had little to show for in terms of its players’ performance on the biggest international stage.

Two of the Premier League’s top strikers – Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku – warmed the bench when England met Belgium in this World Cup’s group stage, but both of them are expected to start in what is the least consequential latter stage match of the tournament – the third place play-off.

England captain Kane currently leads the Golden Boot race with six goals, while Belgium’s own leader figure Lukaku is second behind Kane on four goals. Both players, however, are in the middle of a mini-drought, having started the World Cup on fire. Kane hasn’t scored since his penalty strike against Colombia in the Round of 16 and Lukaku has struggled to find his scoring boots since netting twice against Tunisia in the group stage.

Belgium's Romelu Lukaku and England's Harry Kane will hope to finish the World Cup on a high. Reuters

Belgium's Romelu Lukaku and England's Harry Kane will hope to finish the World Cup on a high. Reuters

With the penultimate game of the World Cup averaging four goals per game since 1934 – 4.25 in the last four World Cups – an entertaining battle seems to be on the cards. More importantly, it is a chance for Kane and Lukaku to add to their respective goal tallies and get the Golden Boot home.

One thread that binds together inconsequential, academic interest matches is the pride attached in such games, a well-worn cliché that never applies to matches with any real consequence and incentive for the winners. Of course, England and Belgium have an incentive to win Saturday’s clash at the Saint Petersburg Stadium as the winner would finish on the podium – England have only ever done so once and Belgium never. Also, the winner will pocket a higher sum of prize money, but both teams will mainly play for the pride they swallowed in their semi-final defeats.

Kane and Lukaku apart, other players who have more than pride to play for will be the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Jordan Pickford, all of whom certainly have their eyes on the individual prizes. Therefore, unlike the last game between England and Belgium when both teams effected a combined 17 starting XI changes, first-choice XIs are expected this time around with all those stakes involved.

Tactical designs

England are unlikely to deviate from their now default 3-3-2-2 setup but there may be personnel changes in certain positions, with the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Danny Rose and Eric Dier primed to start over Kieran Trippier, Ashley Young and Jordan Henderson. Gareth Southgate’s team suffered from a lack of tactical flexibility against Croatia after the initial stages and were completely overrun by the Vatreni midfield, something that the manager would like to correct against Belgium, another elite opponent.

Belgium, with Thomas Meunier back from suspension, will possibly revert to their template 3-4-3 system after experimenting with 4-3-3 variants in their last two matches with mixed results. Roberto Martinez, whose drop after earning his magnum opus in the quarter-final win over Brazil was swift, will look to avoid defeat against England and suffer no further dent to his improving reputation, hence going with his tried and tested 3-4-3 is highly likely.

Key battle: Romelu Lukaku vs Harry Maguire

England centre-back Maguire has proved his aerial prowess at this World Cup. The Leicester City defender has stood tall for the Three Lions’ in defence as well as in attack. In Lukaku, however, Maguire will be up against one of the strongest and most physical centre-forwards around. At this World Cup, Lukaku has been a menace to opposition defences barring the France game in which he was expertly shackled by Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane.

Maguire, who has himself had a spotless World Cup, will likely have to take a leaf out of the French defenders’ book to stop Lukaku from overtaking Kane in the Golden Boot race.

Key stats

England (12) and Belgium (14) are the two top scoring teams of the 2018 World Cup, hence a free-scoring, entertaining third place play-off is certainly on the cards. The onus, however, is on Belgium, who have scored seven goals from open play compared to England’s three.

Since 1982, all third-placed teams at World Cups have been from Europe and all of them, apart from 2006 and 2010’s Germany, failed to qualify for the subsequent European Championship two years later. With World Cup curses very much a thing nowadays, as Germany would attest to after their group stage exit, Saturday’s third place play-off seems to have better incentive for the losing team as far as qualification to Euro 2020 is concerned, if there is any logic to the trend.

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Updated Date: Jul 14, 2018 10:56 AM

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