Do England want to finish second?
The benefit about hosting a “debate” in which only one person puts his thoughts forward is that there can only be one winner – me!
I want to examine two propositions … the first is would it be in the best interests of the England team to finish second in their World Cup group?
And the second is, should England field a so-called “weakened” team against Belgium?
Let’s kick-off with this concept of finishing second.
That’s the worst England can do, I’m extremely glad to note. If that were to happen, that would mean England would miss the possibility of facing Brazil at the quarter-final stage.
Until yesterday the other possibility was that England might face Germany, a team England has always struggled to beat when it matters.
Two exceptions to that statement, the 1966 final, of course, and in the qualifying for the 2002 World Cup when England triumphed 5-1 in Munich. The second was a great, though totally unexpected, result, if you’re English.
But it should be noted that England were knocked out of the tournament in the quarter-finals by Brazil that year while Germany went on to contest the final (also against Brazil) before losing out. In other words, that magic night in Munich counted for little in the end – national pride, apart.
Since England’s one and only World Cup win in 1966 they have met the Germans four times in the finals and haven’t won – two were draws, but one of those was lost on penalties at Italia 90. The overall record (not just World Cups) is 13 wins, four draws and 15 defeats. More balanced than I thought, actually.
Still, with apologies to my German friends, I’m glad that the possibility of facing them has disappeared. The holders finished bottom of their group.
What odds would you have got on that before the start of the tournament?
England’s record against Brazil, however, is equal. Each has won and lost 11 games and drawn four. But, again, on the four occasions England have faced them in the World Cup they have never won.
Given this record, the prospect of finishing second has some distinct appeal. But, let’s look at the other side of the coin.
Were we to beat Belgium and win our round of 16 match (neither a given) that would mean England would face their quarter-final opponents (whoever they are) with four wins under their belts. Momentum, they call it. I am a fan of momentum.
Cast your mind back a couple of years. In the final game of the group stages of Euro 2016 England fielded a weakened side against Slovakia and only drew.
This meant that Wales won the group, leaving England to face Iceland. At the time I recall thinking “only Iceland, no problem”.
Was I in for a shock?
As a result, Wales faced – and beat – Northern Ireland before going on the thump Belgium of their way to the semi-final, which was another shock (to me, not to Welshmen).
For this reason alone, I am not in favour of tactically finishing second.
There has been much debate about whether both Belgium and England will put out weakened teams. Belgian manager Martinez said as soon as his team qualified for the last 16 that he would rest some of his stars for the final group match.
Will/should England do the same?
Reports are suggesting that captain Kane will start, which is good news. Even friends on Facebook who are Arsenal fans are rueing the fact that they passed up on him at a young age. Praise (sort of) for a Spurs player from Arsenal fans is as rare as hen’s teeth.
Supporters of England might be worried about the prospect of Kane gaining the Golden Boot which is awarded to the tournament’s leading goalscorer (at the time of writing he is top of the current list with five).
I’ll explain. The “boot” has been awarded since 1982 but only twice has its winner played for the team that went on to lift the trophy – Italy’s Paolo Rossi in 1982 and Brazil’s Ronaldo in 2002. Golden Boot for Kane, or an England win? No contest. Combination of the two? Yes, please.
If I were a fan of Spurs, I would be concerned about the possibility of Kane being lured elsewhere should he win the Golden Boot. Only one previous winner has stayed with his club for what I regard as a long period of time.
Here is the record of previous winners:
1982: Rossi stayed at Juventus for a further three years before moving to Milan.
1986: Lineker stayed at Leicester for three years before joining Everton (later Barcelona and Spurs).
1990: Schilliaci was at Juventus for two years before moving to Inter-Milan.
1994: Salenko joined Glasgow Rangers a year later; joint boot winner Stoichkov was already a star at Barcelona, but switched a year later to Parma.
1998: Suker, then at Real Madrid, moved the next year to Arsenal.
2002: Ronaldo left Inter-Milan to join Real Madrid the same year.
2006: Klose left Werden Bremen a year later to join Bayern Munich.
2010: Muller is the only one-club man having been at Bayern for his whole career (to date).
2014: Rodriguez left Monaco for Real Madrid the same year.
Kane, understandable, wants to get as many minutes on the pitch as possible in pursuit of the Golden Boot. His substitution against Panama probably didn’t go down too well.
So, the question facing England manager Southgate is does he put out his strongest side or try to rest some of his best performers and protect them from the risk of injury. It’s a tough call with a good case to be made out, either way.
As should be the situation, the players he could bring in are not exactly poor second choices.
Could Southgate “get away” with putting out his reserves?
Much depends on who Belgium rest. A Belgium side without, say, Courtois, De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku doesn’t sound as intimidating. I hope I don’t end up regretting that remark.
I expect that for the Belgium game the following may get some minutes in the match for England – Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gary Cahill, Marcus Rashford and, maybe Danny Welbeck. The latter has not had the best of times with injury which has affected his club form but, stick an England shirt on him, and he is transformed.
Ahead of Kane, no.
But what odds would you give me on Kane for 60 minutes and Welbeck for 30?
It is perfectly possible that it might not be able to separate England and Belgium after the conclusion of the match. A draw plus England gaining one more yellow card than Belgium would leave them equal in every respect. It would be down to a drawing of lots for who tops the group.
If you offered this to me now, I’d settle for that outcome. Though, if both teams secretly wished to finish second, this would raise the unpleasant prospect of them trying to outdo each other in gaining yellow cards. The last 10 minutes could be interesting. Imagine the clogging that could go on!
So what do we know to date?
Irrespective of whether England finish first of second in Group G they will meet one of Senegal, Japan or Colombia from Group H in the last 16. If they win that match having finished top of Group G, their next opponents will be either Brazil or Mexico. If they finish second in Group G and win the last 16 game they will be up against either Sweden or Switzerland.
Given that position, I am waivering a tad, but would still prefer that England put out a strong team and win the group. If they come up short, I would not be happy, but at least it would not be the end of their World Cup story. One thing is for sure, I will watch the Belgium match feeling more relaxed than I did in the last few minutes against Tunisia.
• Earlier in the week, following the Panama game, I wrote a piece lauding the achievements of England teams the previous weekend. I forgot to include the exploits of the England ladies cricket team which set a new record T20 score of 250. Off 120 balls, that takes some doing. I watched highlights of the game and found it very entertaining. Some of the fielding was average at best, but I felt it was quite refreshing to see lots of catches put down. It all added to the drama – and fun.
By Dave Buckley