Belgium’s Premier League brigade aim for bragging rights from England clash
There is still pride at stake in Thursday’s encounter between the European nations.
Belgium’s Premier League stars will be playing for confidence and pride when they take on their friends from England in Thursday’s Group G decider in Kaliningrad.
With both teams already certain of qualification, the only issue to be settled is who, when and where they play in the next round, with Group G’s winner meeting Group H’s runner-up in Rostov on July 2 and the Group G’s second-placed team playing Group H’s top team in Moscow a day later.
But having beaten Panama 3-0 and Tunisia 5-2 in Russia, Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ are relatively relaxed about who their last-16 opponent might be.
They are likely to rest and rotate when they meet England, who are also in the relatively novel position of not needing a result from their last group game to progress.
That does not mean, however, there is nothing riding on a match between two squads that feature 35 English-based players and Belgium’s Celtic defender Dedryck Boyata.
Speaking to reporters after the thrashing of Tunisia, Belgium and Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said he did not think “it matters if you finish second or first” in the group but maintained that the “winning feeling” was important for the Red Devils, who are ranked third in the world by FIFA.
The real motivation, however, is what happens when everyone reports for pre-season training.
“I don’t want to go back to England in July with a losing feeling. I want to win – I think everyone feels that way,” said Courtois.
Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen agreed, saying: “It’s going to be a special game – special because I know a lot of the players.
“It’s going to be interesting to see the guys on such a stage. My team-mates (at Spurs) are my friends so it’s going to be very funny.”
His defensive partner for club and country Toby Alderweireld said he was “looking forward” to playing against a man he knows well from training, England captain Harry Kane, while Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini made a similar point about club mates Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford.
These comments were all made before England demolished Panama 6-1 on Sunday, a result that only increases the likelihood that Belgium boss Roberto Martinez and England’s Gareth Southgate will make several changes.
Martinez has hinted he will rest United’s Romelu Lukaku and perhaps even Chelsea play-maker Eden Hazard, as they are both carrying minor injuries.
Amazing support today! Glad for 3 more points! Thank you everyone in Moscow!! #REDTOGETHER #family— Eden Hazard (@hazardeden10) June 23, 2018
🇧🇪 Supporters au top comme toujours! Super content des 3 points! Merci à tous et merci Moscou! 💪🏼#famille pic.twitter.com/A4s8NkhQuR
He also has three players with yellow cards – Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier and Vertonghen. A second yellow would see them miss the first knockout game.
Southgate will have similar thoughts, as Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kyle Walker are a caution away from a one-game ban, and Dele Alli could be ready to play again after missing the Panama match.
And with confidence growing in both camps, both managers will be thinking about fresh legs later in the tournament.
Having described England as much “improved” and a “very young, talented squad”, Alderweireld said Belgium were looking beyond Thursday’s game.
“We want to stay calm, we want to improve our game and improve as a team,” he said.
“Of course we want do something special, that’s why we are here, but we are keeping two feet on the ground.
“There were some moments (against Tunisia) that were not so good so we will try and improve that in the next couple of games.”