England vs. Belgium: Striker showdown or B-team outing?
KALININGRAD, Russia (AP) — It could be a showdown between two of the hottest strikers at the World Cup. Or it could be a battle of B teams.
With England and Belgium already qualified for the knockout stage after winning their first two matches, Thursday's Group G game in the Russian outpost of Kaliningrad could be a time to give some weary or ailing stars a breather and underused squad members a run out.
That means fans hoping for a shootout between Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku may be disappointed.
After his hat trick against Panama, Kane is the World Cup's top scorer with five goals. That's one more than Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo, who had a penalty saved in Portugal's 1-1 draw with Iran on Monday.
England coach Gareth Southgate has to balance Kane's pursuit of the Golden Boot given to the tournament's top scorer against keeping the player fresh for the knockout stage. With his three goals against Panama, Kane became the third Englishman after Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker to score a hat trick in a World Cup match.
"He's sitting really proudly at the top. He's gone ahead of some major, major names in English football history in terms of World Cup goals," Southgate said. "That should make him incredibly proud, but he also knows the team is the most important thing and we have to make decisions that are right for the team."
Lukaku, meanwhile, did not train with Belgium on Tuesday and looks likely to be rested. Lukaku, playmaker Eden Hazard and winger Dries Mertens are all nursing injuries after Belgium's 5-2 victory over Panama.
There is speculation in England and Belgium that losing Thursday's match could mean an easier route to the final, but both teams insist they will be aiming for a win.
"For our country, that would be a very difficult mindset to have," Southgate said of the possibility of taking it easy. "We want to win every game of football we go into. I don't know how we would go into a game not wanting to win and not wanting to play well."
Belgium defender Toby Alderweireld echoed that sentiment.
"We are going to try to win the game, because as a footballer you want to win every game," he said.
England knows from bitter experience that there is no such thing as an easy draw at major tournaments after its embarrassing defeat by Iceland at the 2016 European Championship in France.
That said, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has already signaled he will be shuffling his team on Thursday.
"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," he said.
Alderweireld, for one, doesn't feel like sitting out a match.
"Rest? I think footballers always want to play. Everybody wants to play," he said. "I feel good. There are enough days between matches. I feel ready if the trainer needs me."
England and Belgium have identical records and goal tallies heading into their group decider, so a draw in Kaliningrad would have FIFA consulting its tiebreaker rules to determine the group winner. That means it could come down to the teams' disciplinary records and if that doesn't separate them, drawing lots.
The Group G winner next plays the runner-up from Group H, where three teams are still in contention — Japan, Senegal and Colombia. The Group G runner-up plays the winner of Group H.
England and Belgium players will encounter plenty of familiar faces. Assuming they play, the match will pit Manchester City teammates Kevin De Bruyne and John Stones against one another, while Kane could have to beat Tottenham defenders Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld if he is to add to his tournament-leading goal tally. Stones also used to play with Lukaku at Everton.
Another Manchester City star, Belgium center back Vincent Kompany, looks to be returning to fitness. He trained with the team Monday and Tuesday, although it remains unclear if he is ready to take on England in a match Belgium doesn't have to win.
Kompany has not played since injuring his groin June 2 in a pre-tournament friendly against Portugal in Brussels.