Meunier and Alexander-Arnold set to wing it in our Belgium v England key battles

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Belgium and England wind-up their World Cup 2018 commitments on Saturday in World Cup 2018’s third-place play-off.

Here are the key battles at Saint Petersburg Stadium:

THOMAS MEUNIER V TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD

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How Belgium missed the suspended Thomas Meunier during their narrow semi-final loss to France.

The unavailability of the Paris Saint-Germain right-back afflicted the one area without any specialist cover in head coach Roberto Martinez’s squad.

Stand-in Nacer Chadli did a poor impression of the first choice’s work and was specially catered for by Les Bleus’ tactics.

They tightly marked Belgium’s main attacking threats, such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, allowing the ball to be funnelled to the ineffectual West Bromwich Albion reject. Meunier’s powerful runs from deep and punishing crosses could not be replicated.

The returnee will now look to utilise these strengths against England, bombing into the space vacated out wide in their 3-5-2 formation.

Few teenagers can match the composure of Liverpool and England defender Trent Alexander-Arnold.

No matter how grand the occasion has been in the 19-year-old’s nascent career, he’s responded with poise and self-assuredness. These character traits should be required, once again, in Saint Petersburg with first-choice right wing-back Kieran Trippier struggling with a groin complaint.

Three Lions head coach Gareth Southgate will not worry about Alexander-Arnold. He made his first Premier League start at bitter rivals Manchester United, struck an explosive free-kick during his Champions League debut in the play-off against Hoffenheim and became Liverpool’s youngest-ever starter in the final – May’s 3-1 loss to Real Madrid.

Having played 79 minutes against Belgium in the group stage, he’ll relish another chance to impress.

AXEL WITSEL V FABIAN DELPH

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Belgium will look to Axel Witsel to win the midfield war against England.

Among the Red Devils’ first-choice players who’ve made five appearances in Russia, only centre-back Jan Vertonghen’s average of 1.8 tackles per game is better than Witsel’s 1.6. The Tianjin Quanjian battler’s pass accuracy of 93.5 per cent is the best among Martinez’s established XI.

A new face will lead the fight for the Three Lions at Saint Petersburg.

Dele Alli’s nagging quad injury should mean he drops out for Manchester City’s Fabian Delph. The 28-year-old started in a second string when Belgium won 1-0 when Group G wound up, plus has twice come off the substitutes’ bench.

His average of 2.1 tackles per game in the Premier League during 2017/18 should provide Southgate with a sense of security.

KEVIN DE BRUYNE V JESSE LINGARD

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Kevin De Bruyne should have something to prove after his disappointing performance in defeat to France.

The Manchester City superstar was unable to showcase his genius at the semi-final stage, as attentions from the likes of Blaise Matuidi shut him down. He produced one key pass, a pass accuracy of 73.1 per cent and had just two attempts on goal.

Jesse Lingard is likely to retain his place in England’s XI, despite playing 483 minutes in Russia.

His role as a link man is shown by an outstanding pass accuracy of 92.6 per cent. Where frustration comes is that he couldn’t wrestle back control of proceedings in defeat to Croatia in the last-four, plus has only registered a single assist and goal at the tournament.

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Changing times for Belgium and England, plus other World Cup 2018 third-place play-off talking points

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A ‘Golden Generation’ remain without silverware and football isn’t coming home.

Belgium and England meet on Saturday with the third place consolation prize up for grabs at World Cup 2018.

This is a fixture neither wanted to fulfil. But after agonising semi-final defeats, to France and Croatia respectively, one last challenge awaits at Saint Petersburg Stadium before flying home.

Here are the talking points:

REPEAT OF THE KALININGRAD CONTROVERSY?

A sense of familiarity defines this fixture.

Beyond the significant Premier League connection – all of England’s participants are home based and 16 of Belgium’s 23-man squad either play there now or have done in the past – the sides last met on June 28 at Kaliningrad Stadium when Group G wound down in quirky fashion.

This was a pre-season friendly masquerading as a competitive World Cup match. Both were already through to the round of 16 and knew victory would come at the cost of a far-more demanding route through the knockouts.

A combined 17 changes followed – nine for Belgium, eight for England – and ex-Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj adeptly curled in the only goal for the Red Devils.

Enthusiasm is again in short supply. Desolation defines both camps after Belgium’s 1-0 loss to France and Croatia’s come-from-behind, 2-1 extra-time triumph versus England.

Contrast now appears apparent, however, in how they choose to exorcise this deadened feeling.

“I am not going to make changes now to give certain players opportunities because they have already received them against England,” said boss Roberto Martinez, who spent 21 years in the United Kingdom as a player and head coach before joining Belgium in 2016.

Expect to see Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Co.

Opposite number Gareth Southgate’s appeared more amenable to widespread alterations.

He said: “I think a physical part of that is going to have a huge bearing.

“I would be really surprised if Kieran Trippier is out there, Ashley Young too. Jordan Henderson is also feeling his hamstring.”

Opportunity abounds, then, for the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Danny Rose and Eric Dier. Probably for Jamie Vardy and Fabian Delph, too.

In 2014, Brazil and the Netherlands made a combined eight changes from the last-four. England should come close to this tally on their own.

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

Football’s grandest trophy will be lifted 24 hours later in Moscow, but a significant individual prize should be decided a day prior and more than 700 kilometres southeast.

England’s Harry Kane sits atop the scoring charts with six and is the overwhelming favourite for the hallowed Golden Boot. Belgium’s Lukaku, who is two strikes in arrears after a fine tournament, leads the chasing pack.

Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Paolo Rossi, Gary Lineker, Davor Suker and Ronaldo. All icons this pair will be looking to join.

Intriguingly, if selected, both will feel they have something to prove after the semi-finals.

Kane was twice denied in a matter of seconds by alert Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic at a critical juncture with England on top, but only one goal to the good.

Lukaku was swamped by Les Bleus’ outstanding centre-backs, plus starved by De Bruyne and Eden Hazard’s unusual wastefulness.

If the strikers have designs on gaining the Golden Boot, they’ll be desperate to start on Saturday. History points towards a goal-fest.

Since 1990, World Cup finals have averaged just 1.4 goals per game. This figure is nearly doubled to 2.7 during third-place play-offs in the same period.

France’s Just Fontaine also struck four times against West Germany in 1958’s gala match.

The race may still be on.

FOOTBALL’S MOST POINTLESS EVENT?

Instantly forgettable and of limited importance, the World Cup’s third-place play-off is football’s damned fixture.

Wounds from semi-final defeats are still gut-wrenchingly fresh for the 22 players who take to the pitch in Saint Petersburg, plus the audiences at home who watched their heroes come up agonisingly short only days prior.

At World Cup 2014, irrepressible Netherlands head coach Louis van Gaal aired the thoughts of many.

He said: “I think this match should never be played. I have been saying this for the past 10 years.”

Van Gaal’s dismissive feelings, however, are not ubiquitous, or universal. It can act as a ceremonial event.

Sweden smashed Bulgaria 4-0 in 1994 and returned to rapturous reception after their shock progress.

Thousands at Luton Airport greeted England four years previously, while Croatia icon Davor Suker elucidated the thoughts of millions of compatriots in 1998 who cherished success less than seven years since their declaration of independence.

He said: “For us, it was amazing to finish third ahead of some of the greatest teams in the world. It confirmed what a great World Cup we had and it was a nice way to finish.”

Victory on Saturday will generate an extra £1.5 million (Dh7.2m) in prize money. A windfall that can be spent on grassroots.

A consolation prize, but one that can have a real impact.

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World Cup victory will provide Didier Deschamps with strong defence for dour France methods

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Entry to an exclusive club awaits Didier Deschamps.

Victory in Sunday’s final at Luzhniki Stadium will see him join Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer as the only figures in history to lift the World Cup as both player and head coach. Some achievement, even in a storied career that already makes him one of football’s most-decorated figures.

When Deschamps laid the platform for the incomparable Zinedine Zidane to down Brazil 20 years ago at a partisan Stade de France, murmurs of discontent about his approach were largely restricted to maverick former team-mate Eric Cantona and his indelible “water carrier” jibe.

Fast forward to the present and, well, expectations are somewhat different.

Rather than lining up alongside many of the globe’s great idols, he now manages them. With Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and L’enfant prodigue Kylian Mbappe, a significant – and sonorous – constituency in the French public and media demands bedazzling football.

Instead, we witness a star-studded team styled in the minimalist image of their leader. They suffocate, rather than shimmer.

From this viewpoint, Euro 2016’s 1-0 showpiece defeat to weakened Portugal acts as incontrovertible evidence of Deschamps’ ultimate futility as a leader.

A reversal suffered on home soil, watched – from the 25th-minute mark – by the injured Cristiano Ronaldo and won by underdogs let off the hook when they should have been euthanised.

Combination of Didier Deschamps the head coach and player.

Combination of Didier Deschamps the head coach and player.

Raw memories for Deschamps. But not ones that have deigned him to change tactics. The 49-year-old is not for turning. Not now, not on Sunday versus Croatia, not ever.

“I have carried a lot of water in my time,” he once remarked. “But those buckets have been filled with trophies.”

A stance that heaps pressure upon him – pressure that can only be relieved by generational success.

Deschamps is small in stature, but possesses shoulders broad enough to bear this burden. And all signs from a month of competition in Russia point to him engineering another landmark triumph.

Brazil, Spain, holders Germany, Argentina and Portugal have not lasted the pace. All must watch from home, including bitter semi-final victims Belgium.

“France heads a corner and does nothing more than defend,” defeated goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was quoted as saying by Sporza. “I would have preferred to have lost in the quarter-finals to Brazil, at least that was a team that wanted to play football. [France] are just an anti-football team.”

If the Portugal defeat two summers ago was the nadir, Tuesday’s 1-0 victory against Belgium acts as the zenith of Deschamps’ vision.

An imperious defensive structure shut down florid playmakers Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, constricting Romelu Lukaku – arguably the competition’s outstanding centre forward. Griezmann then supplied the corner that centre-back Samuel Umtiti flicked in for the only goal.

Vanquished Belgium’s tally of 14 goals is four more than their conquerors.

This was France’s leading fourth clean sheet in Russia. Only Argentina have scored against them in open play, during a 4-3 round of 16 result that acts as a statistical outlier.

Deschamps’ side have rarely moved out of second gear this summer.

They opened in Group C with a 2-1 win against Australia that included a controversial Griezmann penalty and an own goal. A cacophony of boos followed when they ended it versus Denmark with the tournament’s only goalless draw to date.

Centre-backs Umtiti and Raphael Varane have got the breakthrough in their last two knockout ties. In contrast, centre forward Olivier Giroud is yet to have a shot on target from six run-outs.

Frustratingly for Deschamps’ detractors, three goals in nine second-half minutes followed when Argentina went 2-1 up. An alluring image of what could be.

But those rallying against the France supremo are ignorant of history – both his own and the World Cup’s.

France have been more dogged than dazzling at this World Cup.

France have been more dogged than dazzling at this World Cup.

Raymond Goethals at Marseille was a believer in sound defensive tactics. Together, they would win the 1992/93 Champions League and two Ligue 1s.

Deschamps claimed nine trophies under Marcello Lippi at Juventus, a head coach who argued: “A group of the best players do not necessarily make for the best team.”

This ethos rings true of a man who continues to promote Giroud, while ignoring the claims of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema.

The recent history of the World Cup has also rarely rewarded entertainers.

Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 1994 champions with Brazil have gone unloved, while Aime Jacquet’s 1998 squad grew into the competition four years later.

Lippi’s Italy in 2006 were lauded for their durability and warrior spirit. In 2010, Vincente Del Bosque’s Spain won every match 1-0 from the round of 16 to the final.

In 2018, Deschamps’ name should be added to this list.

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