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England vs Belgium: Did either team actually want to win?

Owen Clouting
CONTRIBUTOR
Feature
1.11K   //    29 Jun 2018, 08:16 IST

England v Belgium: Group G - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Tottenham's Eric Dier (left) and Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini tussling for possession

England vs Belgium, as a contest on paper sounds like a great watch for the neutral spectator, a fixture full of some of the world's best with match-winners all across the pitch. In reality however, this was a drab, lifeless performance from two sides not particularly bothered about winning this game.

Beforehand, both teams sat with six points apiece ahead of the final game, which would decide who finishes atop Group G. However, due to results in other groups, it looked more beneficial to finish in second place given the seeming ease of fixtures to come in the upcoming rounds.

Both squads were undoubtedly made aware of the scenario and fielded less-than-full-strength line-ups as a result, giving them an opportunity to rest key players whilst offering a chance to those who were yet to play. England made eight changes, Belgium nine and both teams' best players rarely featured, if at all.

England v Belgium - Group G: FIFA World Cup 2018
Chadli and Fellaini (centre) featured for Belgium in a game where England's backline were finally tested

The two sides essentially put out their second-string teams. Resting players was clearly a high priority for both managers, whilst allowing them an opportunity to watch players who have been waiting patiently from the sidelines thus far this tournament.

Midfield battles and Rashford's struggles

It was tough to pick standout performers from this encounter, although Adnan Januzaj's strike was a memorable finish - not bad for his first senior goal. Tottenham's Mousa Dembele was dominant in central midfield as usual, whilst midfield partner Marouane Fellaini was a focal point in terms of both his physicality and aerial ability.

From England's perspective, this game made for underwhelming viewing in truth. Ruben Loftus-Cheek showed flashes of brilliance, bursting forward from midfield upon occasion and showing desire to create chances - though this was few and far between.

Marcus Rashford looked lively and a handful to deal with, but ultimately his finishing let him down when he was called upon to deliver most.

England v Belgium: Group G - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
England's one clear-cut chance was squandered by young forward Marcus Rashford

England's lack of urgency and things to look forward to

After the match, Gareth Southgate said all the right things during the post-match press conference with ITV but there's no plausible way that he went into the final minutes of the game with the same winning mindset that he has previously.

Adnan Januzaj's strike stirred a positive response from England players, but no changes were made on the touchline. Danny Welbeck came on in the last 20 minutes or so, merely to get some minutes under his belt, as opposed to scoring a late equaliser.

Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling for instance, both of whom would have been expected to make instant impacts off the substitutes' bench, were left there watching and it appeared as though England were content to settle for a slender defeat.

England v Belgium - FIFA World Cup 2018 - Group G - Kaliningrad Stadium
Kane, on five goals for the tournament, was an unused sub despite England needing an equaliser late on

The Belgians appeared that little bit quicker, stronger and sharper throughout the 90 minutes on this occasion. I highly doubt any England players who started here will be back in the starting eleven for their last-16 fixture.

On the other hand, Roberto Martinez may have some more selection dilemmas going forward. Their midfield was impressive but considering the quality of those not involved, you'd assume players including de Bruyne and Eden Hazard would walk back into the starting line-up with relative ease.

Overall, this had an exhibition feel to the match from both sides. Belgium will be happy to progress as group winners, a 100% record and rightfully so. In contrast, I'm sure Southgate and England are quietly happy to find themselves on an easier side of the draw ahead of the latter stages, not least with a fully-rested squad to choose from too.

The mediocrity was clear to see across both sides as neither were keen to press with any real urgency, they didn't need to though. Already qualified, England will naturally feel disappointed to have lost here but in the long-run, it might prove to be a blessing in disguise.

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Owen Clouting
CONTRIBUTOR
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