Again, England, Belgium battle for pride as Kane nears golden ball target

(L-R) England’s defender Trent Alexander-Arnold, England’s midfielder Dele Alli, England’s midfielder Fabian Delph and England’s midfielder Eric Dier take part in a training session in Repino near Saint Petersburg on July 13, 2018 on the eve of the Russia 2018 World Cup third place football match between Belgium and England. PAUL ELLIS / AFP

Sixteen days after their last Group G match at the on-going FIFA World Cup in Russia, England and Belgium will return to the battle field to decide which of them will go home as the third-best team in the world.

That game, meaningless as it was, ended 1-0 in favour of Belgium with former Manchester United star, Adnan Januzaj, getting the winner for Roberto Martinez’s side. It also won the group for Belgium, which went on to beat Japan 3-2 in the second round.

Most English fans did not see the defeat as anything because the Three Lions and their opponents played with second string stars. Today is expected to be different as both teams are condemned to field their best in the search for a consolatory win.

Just like all the teams that have left the tournament, England and Belgium have been ruing what could have been if they had won their respective semifinals against Croatia and France, and their coaches have been trying to rouse them for one last win before the curtain draws tomorrow,

Speaking on the eve of the game, England Manager, Gareth Southgate, acknowledged that the third-place play-off against Belgium is not an assignment he is approaching with any joy, adding he would look at his stars to determine their state, physically and psychologically, before picking the squad.

He needs not worry about the players’ motivation as most of them have talked about the need to leave Russia with something to show their fans back home.

“We came to win this tournament; we can’t do that now, but we want to finish third,” said goalkeeper Jordan Pickford ahead of this tie. “Even if we can’t finish as the best team in the world, we can still be the third best.

“Of course, it will be hard to get ourselves up for it and that’s where character comes in. It’s another chance to show our togetherness. We want to finish a great tournament on a high. If we win we can look back on it with a lot of pleasure and that is what it is all about. Hopefully I will get the nod against Belgium. I’d love to get the goalkeeper of the tournament award.”

Pickford may not get the opportunity to play today, as there are speculations that Southgate could hand the number one spot to Jack Butland. Even then, the Everton goalkeeper is still proud of what he has achieved here.

Aside Butland, Southgate may give Leicester City’s star, Jamie Vardy the chance to start in place of Kane, who was rendered ineffective by Croatian defenders in the semifinals. But that would deny Kane the opportunity to add to his goals and secure the top scorer’s boot, especially with Romelu Lukaku, who has four goals, two short of Kane’s tally, likely to start for Belgium. France’s Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann, who will compete in the final, have three goals each.

Kane said ahead of today’s game that “the third-place game is not a match we wanted to be in. But we will try to play with as much pride as we can and finish on a high. We will still be thinking of the semi-final defeat, and what could have been, but of course I want to play. Everyone will want to.

A combination of file pictures shows Belgium and England fans during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. A gut-wrenching 2-1 loss to Croatia after extra-time denied England a shot at a second World Cup triumph, instead setting up a consolation game against familiar foes Belgium for a third-place play-off on July 14, 2018. STF / AFP

“We are extremely proud of what we have achieved. We know we have restored pride in the England shirt, back home as well, so we can hold our heads up high. But we know that it is an opportunity lost. The aim now is not to have to wait another 20-odd years to get into another big semi-final.”

England defender Kyle Walker sees the third place finish as much more valuable than people think and believes his team mates are motivated to go for it.

“It’s still something massive to play for, to be the third-best team in the world. Who would have thought it, at the start of the tournament when everyone was writing us off?

“We’ve still got a very important job come Saturday to go and beat the Belgians and get the bragging rights over them because they beat us in the group stage,” Walker said.

Wingbacks, Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young may not be fit for the game, just as midfielder, Jordan has aggravated a hamstring complaint. So, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Eric Dier and Danny Rose are likely to start for England.

No matter who plays for England today, Belgium defender, Thomas Meunier believes his team would beat the Three Lions again and prove they are the better side.

“We want to write history with a third place. We have beaten England in the group phase and we want to do that again. Also, England wants to become third. But I think we are better. We have to respect England but also ourselves. That is why we want to win in St. Petersburg,” Meunier said in his team’s official Twitter account.

Earlier at a news conference by his team, Meunier said the third place could be some of his team mates’ last chance to get a medal at the World Cup, acknowledging that the semifinal defeat by France may have cost the “golden generation” of players their last chance at World Cup glory.

“This group could still do something in two years, but in four years’ time, many would have left. But there are a lot of exciting youngsters coming through who might continue our expedition,” he added.

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