England and Belgium will face each other on Thursday for the top spot in their group of the World Cup as defending champions Germany arrived home after a disastrous campaign.
Both teams – England and Belgium, won their opening two group games and are on six points each.
The game will be played on the back of an embarrassing exit of Joachim Low’s 2014 winners, who also finished bottom of their group after a shock 2-0 defeat to South Korea.
While German stars apologised to their fans on social media following their exit, there have been talks about England having an easier route at the World Cup if they lose in Kaliningrad.
Although coach Gareth Southgate insisted his team are much more focused on winning rather than plotting a particular route through the knockout stages.
“We need to keep winning football matches and we want to breed a mentality that everybody in our squad wants to constantly win,” said the manager, who has created a relaxed atmosphere for his young charges.
“We’ve not won a knockout game since 2006. Why we would be starting to plot which would be a better venue for our semi-final is beyond me really.”
England have been impressive in their two outings so far – a 2-1 win over Tunisia and a thumping of Panama 6-1 in Nizhny Novgorod.
However they face a tough opponent in Belgium as they come face to face with world-class talent such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
On an other note, England captain Harry Kane is the top goalscorer at the World Cup with five goals so far and his team would be relying on him to get them going against Belgium.
But Southgate had hinted towards making some changes ahead of the encounter as it isn’t a must-win clash.
On the flip side, Roberto Martinez is expected to make changes to his team, with Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku quite certain to miss out after having injured his ankle in the game against Tunisia.
“We want to perform well but I think the priority is not to win,” Martinez said.
“That’s the reality. We wanted to qualify, we’ve done that. There are players who have been in very demanding games so it’s very important for us to protect and give every player the best opportunity to be in the best condition in the knockout games.”
A humiliating 2-0 defeat at the hands of South Korea meant Joachim Loew‘s team finished last in Group F.
Germany’s national newspaper Bild declared the campaign as “the biggest disgrace in German World Cup history”.
“Such a disaster. World Cup 2018 was not what we expected,” Boateng wrote on Instagram.
“I’m still angry and disappointed and at the same time I feel sorry for all our fans who supported us in the stadiums.
“Four years ago we were on top of the world – now we’re on the bottom. These are the days in the life of a football player nobody envies you for. But that’s life.
“All I can say is thank you to our fans who always support us. We will analyse what went wrong and carry on working as we always did. I promise we’ll be back strong!”
Such a disaster.... World Cup 2018 was not what we expected. I'm still angry and disappointed and at the same time I feel sorry for all our fans who supported us in the stadium or at home in front of the tv or at public viewings. We didn't really get into that tournament. We had our chances and kept on playing all the time but it just didn't work. Four years ago we were on top of the world - now we're on the bottom. These are the days in the life of a football player nobody envies you for. But that's life. All I can say is thank you to our fans who always support us. We will analyze what went wrong and carry on working as we always did. I promise we‘ll be back strong!
Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who was at fault for South Korea’s second goal after coming out of his goal and playing in midfield – where he lost possession – said he has no plans to retire from international football.
The 32-year old accepted responsibility as a captain but admitted the entire squad was to blame for the mishappening.
“You have to say we do not deserve (to go through),” Neuer said.
“In the second round everybody would have liked to play against us. How are we going to be dangerous to an opponent if we do not get our performance (right)?
“We gave a bad picture in the three games. I cannot answer why that happened. We have to take responsibility. We screwed up, (and) we screwed up together.”
Neuer even apologised to his nation on Instagram saying – “We are just as disappointed as you! A World Cup is only every four years, and we had planned so much. We are sorry that we did not play as world champion.”
“Therefore, we are well deserved to be knocked out, as bitter as it is.
“In Rio 2014 we celebrated together. But sports also include defeat and recognition when the opponents were better.
“We congratulate Sweden and Mexico on their progress and South Korea on yesterday’s victory.”
Midfielder Mesut Ozil stayed off social media in the aftermath of the defeat, despite having provided regular updates to his 23 million followers over the last few days.
Defender Mats Hummels though did post a crying emoji with the word “Sorry”.
Meanwhile, coach Joachim Low will be giving a thought to what the future holds for him despite only signing a new contract in May until 2022.
Asked whether he will continue as the German coach in a press conference, he said – “That’s hard to say.
“Of course, it takes a couple of hours to look into that. I’m shocked, I’m shocked because we didn’t manage to pull it off.
“Where we go from here, we’ll have to talk about it calmly. It will take me some hours now to come to terms with it. I’m incredibly disappointed by this elimination.”
Mit großen Ambitionen sind wir das Turnier angetreten, jetzt sitzen wir schon wieder im Flieger zurück nach Deutschland. Dass es so ist haben wir uns leider selbst zuzuschreiben, wir haben nicht die Leistung gebracht die wir von uns erwartet haben und ihr von uns erwarten durftet. Dieser Stachel sitzt sehr tief und wird auch noch länger schmerzen, eine WM ist nur alle 4 Jahre und dementsprechend ist es lange hin wieder die Chance zu kriegen das zu korrigieren. Wir wollen euch für die Unterstützung danken, vor Ort in Russland aber auch zuhause und ich mich an dieser Stelle noch für die unglaublich vielen aufmunternden Nachrichten die mich in den sozialen Netzwerken erreicht haben. Und auch die kritischen Nachrichten sind angebracht und akzeptieren wir. Ab September haben wir als Nationalmannschaft wieder die Chance uns zu rehabilitieren und zu zeigen wieviel besser wir es können.
Germany’s World Cup exit has left the ousted champions with a number of questions to answer.
Here we look at where it went wrong for Joachim Low‘s side.
Low appeared to bring unnecessary scrutiny on himself even before the tournament began by leaving out Manchester City winger Leroy Sane, the Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year.
The thinking was that Julian Brandt fitted better into the national team system – but he played just 19 minutes over the three games.
Low opted not to freshen up his side too much with an injection of youth and pace, and he instead kept faith with many of the players who had done the job four years previously.
He picked 11 players aged 28 or older in his squad, having had just seven in the same bracket for 2014, pushing the average age up from 25.7 to 26.6.
Nine members of the 2014 squad went to Russia and the majority of them were first choice for at least two of Germany’s matches.
However, few seemed to justify their inclusion on form in the preceding months. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had not played a club match since September, centre-back Jerome Boateng had not been convincing for Bayern Munich and midfielder Mesut Ozil had a poor campaign for Arsenal.
When the World Cup started it quickly became apparent Sami Khedira looked every one of his 31 years in midfield while Thomas Muller, with 16 goals for Bundesliga champions Bayern, had not scored since April.
The coach signed a new contract until 2022 in May which would take his reign to 16 years should he see it out. But the methods which had seen him reach the semi-finals of every major tournament appeared to have run their course in Russia.
That was highlighted by the inconsistent team selections, which saw only three outfield players keep their place for each match, and confused thinking with Leon Goretzka, a central midfielder or number 10, played as a right winger against South Korea.
Results had not been encouraging leading into the tournament with the 2-1 friendly victory over Saudi Arabia their only prior win of 2018.
Low has subsequently admitted he felt there was a sense of superiority leading up to the 1-0 defeat to Mexico in their opening World Cup game.
He said: “I had the feeling that there was perhaps a certain arrogance before the Mexico game (within the camp) – like we would be able to react at the touch of a button when it all starts.”
German magazine Sport Bild also reported a rift had developed in the side between players who were big on social media, such as Ozil, and the Bayern contingent.
Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan also brought focus on the team when they were pictured in May with controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of his country’s elections, leading to Germany’s political leaders asking for explanations.