Belgium and England set to rest, rotate, maybe disappoint
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — Sadly for the fans, Belgium and England are ready to rest and rotate.
In it for the long haul, they face a World Cup reality that could strip some of the flavor from a mouthwatering group decider between two Premier League-rich squads and two of the tournament's high-scoring teams.
Both have already qualified for the last 16 — only the group winner needs to be decided — so Thursday's Group G finale in Kaliningrad provides a rare chance in an unrelenting World Cup schedule to rest tired legs, recover from injuries and avoid the risk of suspensions.
Also, fringe squad members can get game time when the pressure is off, in case they are needed unexpectedly when it really counts down the road.
And so the big individual matchups that held so much intrigue a week ago may not materialize.
"It will be major (team) changes against England," Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said. "The reality is that we are qualified and in a tournament like the World Cup, you're only as good as the 23 players (in the squad). There will be opportunities for other players."
So, possibly no Romelu Lukaku of Manchester United up against former Everton teammate John Stones, now with Manchester City. No midfield contest pitching Eden Hazard of Chelsea and Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City on Belgium's side against Jordan Henderson of Liverpool and Jesse Lingard of Manchester United on England's.
And maybe no sign of the World Cup's leading goal-scorer, England captain Harry Kane, taking on Tottenham clubmate and Belgium defender Jan Vertonghen.
If Kane and Lukaku don't get on the field, two of the three top goal-scorers in Russia will be missing.
And that would be a shame for the fans.
But that's the World Cup, where if you want to win the title you need to get through seven games in a little over four weeks, and win four of those games against the best in the space of 16 days at the business end.
"If we could have seven days to prepare (for) the game and then have another seven days until the next game, I would say let's carry on with the same starting 11," Martinez said.
Belgium has reasons other than fatigue to rotate its players.
Main striker Lukaku and playmaker Hazard both picked up injuries in the 5-2 win against Tunisia, Martinez said, as did forward Dries Mertens. Although none of those injuries appear serious, they are obvious candidates to miss the England match to ensure they are 100 percent fit for the knockouts.
Also, influential midfielder De Bruyne and defenders Vertonghen and Thomas Meunier have one yellow card at the World Cup. Another against England would see them suspended for the first of the knockout games.
The risks of playing them are significant.
The rewards? There are some, too.
Maintaining a winning momentum can be precious at the World Cup, the counter-argument that needs to be carefully considered by Martinez and England coach Gareth Southgate as they try to strike a balance.
"We don't want to take our foot off the gas with the performances we are putting in right now," England midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek said after the 6-1 pummeling of Panama.
But Southgate said England also had to "decide what is our priority."
Easy answer: the knockout games.
For the English, Kane and central midfielder Henderson, who is coming off a long season with Champions League finalist Liverpool, might be asked to sit out against Belgium. Even if they don't want to.
"It is his (Southgate's) decision, I guess," said Kane, who leads the running for the Golden Boot award with five goals in two games. "Obviously I want to play, I want to perform. Whatever decision he makes, it is his decision."
At a World Cup players want to play every match, England's Lingard said, "but you've got to listen to the gaffer (coach)."
There's one more reason why the Belgians and English may not be desperate to roll out their big guns in Kaliningrad.
Whoever wins the group could possibly face defending champion Germany or Neymar and Brazil in the quarterfinals. Second in the group presents, at least on paper, an easier path.
Both camps denied giving any time to the theory that a defeat might help them in the longer term.
"I want to win," England defender Stones said. "If you go into it with a different mindset, (that) second's better ... it doesn't end well in my previous experience."