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Southgate hails ‘incredible’ character of England players ahead of Belgium tie

Three Lions round off their World Cup campaign in St Petersburg on Saturday.

Gareth Southgate has been blown away by his players’ response to their semi-final devastation as focus turns to becoming the second-best England side in World Cup history.

The extra-time loss to Croatia in midweek means the Three Lions are preparing for Saturday’s third-place play-off against Belgium in St Petersburg instead of the showpiece final against France the following day.

Southgate and his players are still trying to digest Wednesday’s 2-1 semi-final loss, but there is little time to wallow with England having the chance to achieve the nation’s best-ever finish at an overseas World Cup.

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“In terms of mentality, it’s obviously been a really difficult couple of days for us,” the England manager said.

“We were 20 minutes from a World Cup final, and then in extra-time 10 minutes from a shootout to get to a World Cup final.

“The reason for us being here was to achieve that big goal. For all of the players and all of the staff, we got back to St Petersburg at 6.30am after the game, so emotionally it has been a very difficult few days.

“But I’ve got to say the players are incredible. They’re an absolute pleasure to work with and their energy this morning, their desire to finish the tournament well….

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How England have fared in the World Cup since 1966 (PA Graphics)

“We feel we owe it as much to ourselves as to our public, and our nation I think now. We’ve brought a lot of pride but we want to finish the tournament well.

“We’ve set a standard in how we work, a standard in the way that we play and we want to aspire to that level every time we come out and every time we train.

“We want to keep those standards right to the end and the players did that this morning in training. What we have to decide with the team is who can go again physically – it’ll be important.”

Southgate reported that everyone had trained on Friday, but that some of those who had featured in the semi-final may not have recovered sufficiently to face the Belgians.

“Sometimes it’s not always a good decision for people to play if their energy isn’t quite there and we’ve got to think about who can give us the best performance,” he said.

“It won’t be exactly the same starting XI, but we want ideally to make as few changes as possible. We’ve one or two injuries, one or two with a little bit of illness, so we just have to see.

“But we have high motivation to perform. We have the chance to win a medal at a World Cup, which only one other English team has ever done.

“So there’s a lot of motivation for us and of course Belgium have beaten us once already, so we’d like to redress that as well.”

Kieran Trippier trained on the eve of the game but looks a doubt after a nerve problem and cramp forced him off late in extra-time against Croatia, while Southgate did not rule out changing goalkeepers.

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Kieran Trippier came off injured against Croatia (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Perhaps the most interesting decision, though, relates to six-goal striker Harry Kane, who leads the Golden Boot race and was among eight changes when England’s reserves lost 1-0 to Belgium’s back-ups in the Group G finale last month.

“We have a captain whose first thought all tournament has been how far can the team go? How can he help the team to progress?” Southgate said.

“He was totally on board with us not playing him in the first game against Belgium. If he had a different mindset, he’d have been insisting he played in the game.

“He didn’t. He wanted to do what was right for the team, so it would be even more powerful for him if he wins the Golden Boot having made that sacrifice, in my opinion.”

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Harry Kane celebrates his winner in the opening game against Tunisia (Adam Davy/PA)

It would be a momentous achievement for captain Kane, albeit scant consolation after falling short of the World Cup final.

Southgate is well aware of what an opportunity they let slip but is not worrying about whether this summer is as good as it gets.

“I’m not scared of anything,” he said. “Not even of the big bad wolf, really!

“We’re here to try and improve every time we play and every time we go into a tournament.

“In many respects, there were low expectations this time that relieved the pressure, but nevertheless there was still pressure to get out of the group, pressure to win their first knockout game, pressure to win the penalty shootout.

“They coped brilliantly with all of that, so if we want to play for England you have to deal with expectation. It’s the same as if you were at a big club.”

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