They’ll always hit you and hurt you, defend and attack. There’s only one way to beat them: two penalties, two from set pieces, and a massive deflection off Harry Kane’s ankle.
England made light work of Panama’s bully-boy tactics on Sunday, and had the game wrapped up by half time. That did though leave them enough time to concede a daft goal and sink my ‘England to win to nil’ bet. I cursed Kyle Walker after the Tunisia match, and now it’s Felipe Baloy’s turn.
Belgium had a similar match at the weekend, as they put five past Tunisia but still managed to concede a couple of goals too. As England and Belgium’s matches shared 15 goals last weekend, should we expect plenty on Thursday night?
The short answer: who knows? The perils of being a preview writer is not knowing what starting XI each manager is going to employ. For most games you can hazard (pun alert) an educated guess, and you know both teams will want to win the game.
Yet we have a scenario here where not winning this match may be a preferable outcome for both sides. While none of the big guns will await in the last 16, with Senegal, Japan or Colombia the opponents in that round, the Group G winners may face a quarter-final against Germany or Brazil but the runners-up could face Serbia or Mexico.
There’s also the issue of squad rotation. Belgium are making noises that they will rest and rotate, and Gareth Southgate knows the pain of spending the whole of the 2002 World Cup as an unused substitute, so may want to spare his fringe players from that experience.
Then again, I never get all of my predictions right anyway (who does?) so it’s best not to try to overthink these things.
To answer my initial question about goals, I think this will be a low-scoring affair. At the last World Cup there were a total of 42 goals in the third group stage games, which was lower than for the first and second batch, and there were 34 at the same stage in 2010. People often expect chaos in these matches, but it seems that hasn’t come to pass too often in recent times.
There’s also the fact neither of these sides see many goals when playing a team of comparable quality. It’s all very well spanking Tunisia or Panama, but how about when you play another strong team (I’m being kind here, England)?
Under Southgate, the Three Lions have faced Spain, Germany (twice), France, Brazil, Netherlands and Italy. In those seven games, both teams scored in three of them, and there were over 2.5 goals in just two.
Belgium have tended to hide from the big guns during Roberto Martinez’s tenure for some reason, but the pattern looks similar: 0-2 vs Spain, 1-1 against Netherlands, and a 0-0 draw with Portugal.
I’ve painted myself into a 1-1 score line corner here, haven’t I? Having checked the odds, it seems Paddy agrees with me, as that is the 5/1 favourite in the correct score stakes. In a game where neither team will be desperate to win, a low score draw certainly seems feasible.
And if that’s the case, who tops the group will come down to who has received the fewest cards. Ahead of the game, it’s England 2-3 Belgium on that front, so it’s not a case that jingoistic newspapers are putting England top of Group G for the sake of it, they genuinely are at present. If you want to bet on cards in this match, here’s my advice:
See if Marouane Fellaini starts, and go from there.
Plus, with so many Premier League players involved, this match could have a derby feel to it.
Your goal scorer bets will obviously need to rely on the team news too. My absurd wildcard tip for Harry Kane to score against Panama paid off, and as ever with Southgate’s England, he’s the obvious choice if he starts. The Tottenham man is 7/2 to score first, or 5/4 to net at any time.
Beyond him, the cupboard is fairly bare. By netting twice against Panama, John Stones became the joint-third top scorer for England since Southgate took charge. He (or whichever centre-back starts) wouldn’t be a bad shout here actually, as England are the joint-top scorers of set piece goals in the World Cup, and Tunisia scored that way against Belgium on Saturday. Whichever defender you choose, they’re all around 35/1 to score first, or a more likely 13/1 to score at any time.
For Belgium, Romelu Lukaku (at 17/10 to score, or 9/2 to break the deadlock) is the obvious choice, but there’s rumours he may miss the game. Michy Batshuayi is a more than capable replacement, even if he did miss several excellent chances against Tunisia. The Chelsea (is he really?) forward has scored eight times in his 17 appearances for Belgium, and is 9/2 to score first, or 15/8 at some point.
One final interesting bet could be for there to be a penalty, which is available at 15/8. It’s worth bearing in mind, as VAR has sent spot-kicks through the roof. After 36 games there have already been 20 penalties, which is more than in any of the last six World Cups, and at least seven more than every Premier League side saw in their 38 games last season.
If you think there’s going to be one, bear that in mind in the scorer markets. Eden Hazard scored from the spot against Tunisia, and is 12/5 to score at any time. For England it’ll be Kane if he plays or presumably Jamie Vardy (who is 2/1 to net) if he doesn’t. VARdy indeed.