A ‘Golden Generation’ remain without silverware and football isn’t coming home.
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.
4 - England have now been eliminated in four of their five semi-finals at major tournaments, losing each of the last four in a row (Euro 1968 v Yugoslavia, World Cup 1990 v Germany, Euro 1996 v Germany and World Cup 2018 v Croatia). Crushed. #ENGCRO #ENG #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/XzAE8zGD5Y— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 11, 2018
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.
We came far. We gave it our all.— Axel Witsel (@axelwitsel28) July 10, 2018
The future is Belgian. 🇧🇪
A big thank you from heart, to our supporters in Russia, back home & around the world for the love 🙏🏽 We still have a game left & we will fight to finish the tournament on third place.#REDTOGETHER pic.twitter.com/bWqtQbyhyl
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.
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.
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.
Mario Mandzukic was the hero in extra time as Croatia came back from behind to earn a first spot in a major final, at England’s expense.
Right-back Kieran Trippier rocketed in a fifth-minute free-kick in the World Cup semi-final, with Tottenham team-mate Harry Kane soon failing to double the lead. These misses – in the Three Lions’ first last-four clash in the global event since 1990 – came back to hurt them in the second half at Luzhniki Stadium.
Winger Ivan Perisic volleyed in the 68th-minute leveller, via a potential high foot. Then in extra-time, veteran striker Mandzukic took advantage of centre-back John Stones’ woeful marking to see Croatia go one better than their ‘Golden Generation’ twenty years ago in France.
Danijel Subasic – 8: An excellent tournament for the Monaco goalkeeper continued. Highlight was the first-half save and remarkable recovery to deny Kane.
Sime Vrsaljko – 8: Croatia were grateful that he recovered, miraculously, from injury. Teed up Perisic’s equaliser and headed off the line from Stones.
Dejan Lovren – 6: Lucky not to get booked and appeared a ticking time bomb. But did superbly to deny nemesis Kane a close-range header.
Domagoj Vida – 6: Booed relentlessly by the Russians in the crowds after his pro-Ukraine remarks. Initially troubled by Raheem Sterling’s pace, then recovered.
Ivan Strinic – 5: Pegged back by the endeavour of England’s goal scorer, Trippier. Did not look assured in, or out, of possession. Injured late on.
Marcelo Brozovic – 7: Early influence on proceedings was negated by England’s route-one tactics. But the Internazionale anchor’s ability would tell past 60 minutes.
Ante Rebic – 5: Fired in several wild shots and could do nothing with the rebound when Perisic’s second-half shot hit the woodwork.
Luka Modric – 8: Grew in authority at the Luzhniki Stadium. Had the third-highest pass accuracy for Croatia. This was a telling statistic as Croatia rebounded.
Ivan Rakitic – 7: Produced a surprising number of loose balls in the first half. Emerged a different, more authoritative figure after the break. A fine player.
Ivan Perisic – 8: Anticipation for volley was fantastic, soon after struck the post and then supplied the perfect cross for Mandzukic which should have led to another.
Mario Mandzukic – 8: Laudable energy levels. A third-successive extra-time period saw him only just denied by Pickford and then, decisively, smash in from close range.
Josip Pivaric – 6: Like-for-like replacement for the lame Strinic. Missed in shootout against Denmark and would have been relieved not to go again.
Andrej Kramaric – 5: Leicester City flop could not punish the country in which he did so little. Made shocking decision to shoot.
Vedran Corluka – N/A: Experience made sure Croatia held firm in the final throes.
Milan Badelj – N/A: Last-gasp handball was not punished by England.