England could have an easier route to the World Cup final if they lose their last group game against Belgium tonight, but should they play to lose or keep the winning streak?
Eight goals in the first two group games for England secured their place in the last 16 of the World Cup with a match to spare. Tonight sees their final group clash against a star studded Belgium squad who’ve arguably been one of the stand out teams of the tournament thus far, with usual heavy hitters Brazil, France, and Spain looking off the pace and Germany eliminated in a shock 2-0 loss to South Korea.
But such are the machinations of group stage football that England now find themselves in a curious position where finishing second in their group gives them (arguably) an easier path to the final. Brazil or Mexico await them in the Quarter finals if they beat Belgium today, if they lose, it’ll be Switzerland or Sweden.
Southgate’s England have a choice. Either they play the system or they play the beautiful game. Should England play to lose against Belgium this evening?
With qualification secured, the Three Lions have a chance to rest their key players, keeping them fresh for the knockout stages of the tournament. Aside from Kane, whose designs on the golden boot will surely see him feature, Southgate could rest usual starters Henderson, Sterling, Young among others and give the likes of Rose, Dier and Vardy some game time.
England’s last 16 fixture will fall on either Monday or Tuesday next week, leaving very little time for recovery from tonight’s game. England’s players are used to games coming thick and fast, especially those who play champions league football, but the searing heat and distances between games in Russia (for their first game England travelled 1000 miles to play) make recovery a more arduous process.
Shifting the squad around is one thing, but purposefully losing? That’s another. England players only pass it into their own net when big brothers give younger brothers a head start on FIFA. Not at the real life World Cup. But this is the year of shocks and upsets, giant slaying and minnow marvelling. Who’s to say Gareth’s brave men shouldn’t add to the madness and get Phil Jones on the score sheet with a couple of own goals?
Let’s reiterate Kane’s designs on the golden boot. If triumphant, he’d be the first Englishman to win since big Garry in 1990. The Tottenham front man currently has 5 goals from 2 games, including a hattrick in the second group match against a squirming Panama side who made their World Cup debut in Russia.
Personal missions aside, an England win would be good for the squad’s confidence and would keep momentum going moving forward. Ex England winger Steve McManaman thinks they should go for it. “If you’re Gareth Southgate you want to win the game don’t you. I think they have to just go out and win and have this winning mentality, and get 9 points and try and steamroll right through the tournament” he said on ESPN.
Momentum and a winning mentality could prove vital in the latter stages of the tournament as the so-called big teams have so far struggled this year; especially Germany who, incredibly, failed to progress beyond the group stage for the first time since 1938. Do the historically ‘better’ teams such as Brazil and Uruguay actually pose more of a threat to England than the supposedly ‘lesser’ teams of Switzerland and Russia? So far, this tournament would tell you not.
Although Southgate is expected to field a changed side against Belgium, it’s likely England will be in it to win it as they look to send a message to the remaining teams in the tournament. That message? It’s coming home.