England and Belgium will face each other in St. Petersburg on Saturday in the match no one wanted to play – the FIFA World Cup third place playoff. Both sides were left to wonder what might have been, after disappointing performances in their respective semi-finals.
Belgium’s much-vaunted attack was blunted by France’s outstanding defence in a 1-0 win for Les Bleus. In the second semi-final, the Three Lions made an excellent start against Croatia, only to lose control of the game in the second half as the Vatreni went on triumph 2-1 in extra time.
England manager Gareth Southgate has insisted that there won’t be many changes for Saturday’s game. Nevertheless, some of his first choice lineup will surely be granted a well-deserved rest – not least Kieran Trippier, who limped off before the end of extra time against Croatia.
Here’s how the Three Lions might line up against the Red Devils on Saturday.
1. GK: Jack Butland
Butland could be forgiven for having mixed feelings this summer. On the one hand, he will no doubt be as delighted as any patriotic Englishman that the Three Lions made such excellent progress in the World Cup.
On the other hand, Jordan Pickford’s heroics – especially his three fantastic saves in the quarter-final win over Sweden – mean that Butland may have to content himself with an understudy role in the England setup for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the Stoke City keeper may still see Saturday’s game as an opportunity to consolidate his place in the squad.
2. RWB: Trent Alexander-Arnold
Liverpool’s 19-year-old right back has been limited to a supporting role in Russia, thanks to the outstanding form of Kieran Trippier. However, Saturday’s clash could give Alexander-Arnold an opportunity to consolidate his status as Trippier’s understudy.
If Alexander-Arnold can show the kind of form which he displayed in the Reds’ thrilling run to the UEFA Champions League final, the Belgians may struggle against him.
However, the Red Devils are expected to field something close to a full-strength lineup, so the teenager will no doubt face a stern test on Saturday.
3. CB: Kyle Walker
You could argue that Kyle Walker’s World Cup started and finished in disappointing fashion.
The Manchester City defender gave away a needless penalty in England’s opener against Tunisia, and he was caught napping by Ivan Perisic for Croatia’s equaliser in the semi-final. Like the rest of the England team, he faded badly from that point on.
It’s a great shame, because Walker has actually had a highly impressive World Cup, despite playing in what is still an unfamiliar role for him. He has generally shown good positional sense, and his lightning pace is a huge asset in central defence.
4. CB: John Stones
Gareth Southgate has said that many England players ‘came of age’ at this World Cup. Stones is undoubtedly one of them.
After a mixed season at Manchester City, the Barnsley Beckenbauer proved his worth at both ends of the pitch for the Three Lions. With the exception of the latter stages of the semi-final against Croatia, he looked every bit as assured at the back as in his best games for City.
Stones also impressed from attacking set pieces, scoring two headed goals. This means he’s already scored twice as many World Cup goals as Wayne Rooney.
5. CB: Harry Maguire
The Leicester City defender has been nothing short of a revelation in Russia, as he made a mockery of his lack of international experience to impose himself on his opponents.
Strong in the air, intelligent in his positioning, comfortable on the ball and always willing to bring it forward, Maguire has proved to be exactly the kind of centre back Southgate wants for his England side.
He is also a tremendous threat from set pieces, as illustrated by his crucial goal in the quarter-final against Sweden.
The Foxes may struggle to hold onto the 25-year-old next season.
6. LWB: Danny Rose
He may not be able to match Ashley Young’s prowess from set pieces, but Rose offers greater attacking urgency and direct running than Young – as he demonstrated after replacing the Manchester United man against Croatia.
Rose also caused Colombia problems in the round of 16, flashing a dangerous cross-shot across goal as the match headed towards a penalty shootout.
Then again, he may only have limited opportunities to show his attacking attributes against Belgium, whose dynamic approach will likely force England onto the back foot for long periods on Saturday.
7. DM: Jordan Henderson
England’s vice captain is another player who has surely enhanced his reputation after his exploits in Russia.
The Liverpool man was particularly outstanding in the quarter-final against Sweden, working tirelessly throughout and making an excellent goal-saving block.
His only really disappointing game was against Croatia, where the gulf in technical class between him and Luka Modric was painfully apparent. Even then, he did his utmost to contain his dangerous opponents.
You could also argue that Southgate’s 3-5-2 formation left Henderson with too little protection against a world class midfield. He may have the same problem on Saturday.
8. RM: Jesse Lingard
As so often at major tournaments, England fans have been left with plenty of ‘what ifs’. For example, what if Jesse Lingard had blasted the ball into the net against Croatia, rather than trying to place it?
If he’d finished with the same stunning authority he showed against Panama in the group stage, this potential lineup might have been for the final against France. Alas, we’ll never know.
In any case, Lingard’s brilliant goal against Panama and superb cross for Dele Alli’s goal against Sweden were only the two best highlights of a superb World Cup for the young star.
9. LM: Ruben Loftus-Cheek
The Chelsea man is yet to realise his prodigious potential at international level, although he impressed at times against Panama – and, to be fair, he’s only 22 years old.
If Southgate decides to give the out-of-form Dele Alli a rest, Loftus-Cheek may replace the Tottenham man. If he can replicate the scintillating form which he showed in November’s friendly against Germany, he could create problems for the Belgians.
As long as he can continue to play regular first team football in the Premier League, Loftus-Cheek is bound to be a key player for England for many years to come.
10. ST: Marcus Rashford
The Manchester United forward has been limited to a bit part role in Russia – including England’s previous clash with Belgium, in which he wasted an inviting opportunity to score against Thibaut Courtois.
Nevertheless, Rashord made a vital contribution to the win over Colombia, showing remarkable nervelessness to convert his penalty in the shootout.
Sadly for the Three Lions, he was unable to make a match-winning contribution against Croatia, but it wasn’t for want of trying. Raheem Sterling’s lack of goals will no doubt give Rashford hope that he may yet move above his rival in the England pecking order.
11. ST: Harry Kane
It says a lot about Kane that he has netted six goals in this World Cup without actually being at his very best.
Admittedly, three of them were penalties and one was a fluke, but it’s still no mean feat to convert three penalties (plus one in the shootout against Colombia) at a World Cup.
Unfortunately, he missed a great opportunity to put England 2-0 up against Croatia – a chance which he’d likely have taken if he’d been in top form. Yet the Golden Boot still beckons for Kane – provided that Romelu Lukaku doesn’t overtake him on Saturday.