This Thursday marks crunch time for England in this year’s World Cup – and not in the way you might think. Gareth Southgate’s young side have looked impressive thus far and wins over Tunisia and Panama have already put them into the last 16 – meaning their final Group G game against Belgium takes some new meaning.
Rather than being a must-win fixture it’s now a unique opportunity – a chance for the Three Lions to pick up their first win over a major nation in a competitive fixture since their victory over Argentina in 2002 in a relatively low-pressure situation.
Of all of the teams at Russia 2018, perhaps no other side will be as familiar to England’s players as Belgium. Of Roberto Martinez’s star-studded squad, no less than 11 of the 23 ply their trade in the Premier League, with a further 4 having previously been there too. That means that the “unknown” or “bogeyman” effect that we’ve seen international stars have on England’s psyche before probably shouldn’t exist.
The likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, John Stones and Raheem Sterling pit their wits against Belgium’s best every day in training with their clubs, and while the same can of course be said in reverse, the likelihood is that no other players know the weaknesses of Belgium’s stars quite like England’s do.
Sure, amazing talents like Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku – if they all play – sound scary to face, but when you come up against them week in, week out in the Premier League, how bad can it really be? This is very different from a fixture pitting England against say, Argentina and the lesser-faced talents of Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala, for instance – meaning England might have a small psychological advantage.