It might become the most bizarre international game in Belgium’s history. Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier and Jan Vertonghen, all on a yellow card, won’t play against England. In all likelihood, neither will Romelu Lukaku.
“Maybe I will replace the entire team”, says Roberto Martínez. He doesn’t fancy winning Group G.
Both sides’ head coaches, Gareth Southgate and Martínez, have made it clear that they do not want to speculate, plot and predict. Southgate even calls it ‘dangerous territory’.
Do you and I have to believe them? Currently it all has the appearance of lip service.
“I have said all along that I don’t want to limit what they feel is possible”, Southgate said on Sunday, “and that’s still how I feel.”
England feel no pressure. Winning the group or being second doesn’t matter – for them it’s about the feeling and being fearless.
Martínez on the other hand is faced with a dilemma: being the group winner on Thursday, or giving that honor to England and ‘managing’ the tournament. He wants to become world champion.
According to the wallcharts the easiest road to the final on July 15 in the Luzhniki Stadium appears to be by finishing second in group G. That way, as it stands, you avoid Brazil, Germany and France.
Martínez gave a press conference on Monday. All words and smoke and mirrors, but a clever listener could read between those lines.
Martínez: “It would be very unprofessional for the players with a yellow card (De Bruyne, Meunier, Vertonghen) to get a red.”
Martínez: “It is good to be able to prepare and play a match in the familiar surroundings of Moscow – that helps.”
Martínez: “It is certainly an option to change the entire team.”
The question was then asked: “Roberto, do you want to win the group?” Martínez smiled: “Well, you know…You always play to win.”
Around the Belgium camp you hear that playing in Moscow is high on the head coach’s wishlist. The first second round match for the runner-up in Group G will be played in the Russian capital, just like the semi-finals and the final. And Martinez doesn’t want to burn his fingers against opponents like Brazil or Germany, even Colombia, as they all pose a real threat for this Belgium squad.
The question will be whether this squad has the talent and the mental maturity to overcome the plotting and calculating by playing against the’weaker’ squads after the group stages. In France, at the Euros, it went horribly wrong against Wales, when the draw offered Belgium a free ride to the semi-finals.
If Martínez is convinced that the road to Moscow, through Moscow traffic, offers Belgium the greatest guarantee of success, he must pursue that. He could leave important players out of his eleven against England, and give the starting players a different challenge – just go enjoy yourself, have fun, don’t care about the result.
It promises to be a very weird game.