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Preview: England vs. Belgium - prediction, team news, lineups

Sports Mole provides team news, predicted lineups and a full match preview for England's Group G decider against Belgium at the 2018 World Cup.

England and Belgium will do battle for top spot in Group G on Thursday knowing that they are both already assured of a place in the last 16 of the World Cup.

Only disciplinary records separate the two sides going into their Kaliningrad showdown, with England topping the group by virtue of having picked up one yellow card fewer than the Red Devils.


England

England's John Stones celebrates scoring their first goal in the match against Panama on June 24, 2018© Reuters

Even the most ardent of England fans may have been slightly sceptical about their ability to light up this World Cup, but so far Gareth Southgate's side have defied many pre-tournament predictions.

Having failed so spectacularly at the past two major tournaments, Southgate's youthful squad was widely seen more as one for the future, but after two games they find themselves as the joint-highest scorers in the World Cup.

But for a host of missed chances in the first half of their late 2-1 win over Tunisia they could even lay claim to sole ownership of that crown, and they showed no such mercy in the 6-1 rout of Panama.

Five first-half goals in Nizhny Novgorod helped England into the knockout rounds with a game to spare and showcased an air of ruthlessness not seen before in the Southgate era.

The eventual five-goal victory was the biggest England have enjoyed since beating San Marino 6-0 in September 2015, and also their biggest ever victory at the World Cup, completing their best-ever start to a World Cup in the process.

Indeed, this 2018 campaign is already England's second-highest scoring World Cup ever - behind only the triumphant 1966 - although caution still needs to be exercised heading into their final and most difficult group game.

Belgium have matched England's goal tally too, and it is only England's marginally-better disciplinary record which means that they top the group ahead of Roberto Martinez's side.

Should the two sides draw on Thursday then that disciplinary record - which currently sees England on two yellow cards and Belgium on three - would decide things, and if even that record ends identically then it will come down to a drawing of lots.

There have been suggestions that finishing second in the group would actually be more favourable; as things stand the group winners could face either Germany or Brazil in the quarter-finals, should they make it that far, whereas the runners-up would be in the same side of the draw as Switzerland and Mexico.

Both sides will have a better idea of the state of play after Wednesday's matches, although planning too far ahead at a World Cup can be dangerous and any suggestions that England might be better off losing the game - and with it momentum - have been given short shrift by those inside the camp, particularly those with memories of their failure to take advantage of a kind draw at Euro 2016.

Recent form: WW
Recent form (all competitions): WDWWWW


Belgium

The Belgium team line up before their friendly game with Portugal on June 2, 2018© Reuters

It was always the most likely scenario that Belgium and England would enter their long-awaited final group game vying for top spot, but the Red Devils will not have been expecting the possibility of it coming down to their disciplinary record - or even the drawing of lots.

Of course, Martinez's side could still avoid that fate by beating the Three Lions, and they will go into the match full of confidence that they can achieve that, ranked as they are third in the world.

However, Martinez has already indicated his intention to make wholesale changes to his squad, and considering the level of England's performances so far at the World Cup, this contest could be more evenly-matched than many observers might have expected before the tournament.

Belgium, like England, will know that finishing second could potentially see them avoid Brazil or Germany - although that scenario could also change before kickoff - but they also have the strength in depth to be able to make so many changes and still field a dangerous side.

Five different players have already scored for them at this World Cup - including four goals for Romelu Lukaku alone - and while England needed a late winner in their opening match, Belgium have cruised through both of their contests comfortably.

A 3-0 win over Panama in their first match was a baptism of fire for the tournament debutants which only got worse against England, but Belgium made much shorter work of Tunisia than their Group G rivals managed.

The Red Devils were 3-0 up at half time and went on to record a 5-2 victory, leaving them level with England and hosts Russia as the leading scorers at the tournament.

Belgium have now scored at least three goals in each of their last four games - all of which ended in victory - while they are on a 21-match unbeaten run which is bettered by only Spain at this summer's tournament.

Martinez's side have not been too used to fine margins in that time, though - their aggregate score from their 21-game streak is 72-17 - and the margins have very rarely been finer than those which currently separate these two sides.

Recent form: WW
Recent form (all competitions): WDWWWW


Team News

England striker Harry Kane in action during his side's international friendly with Nigeria at Wembley on June 2, 2018© Reuters

All of the talk around the team news for this match has surrounded changes; Martinez has already hinted at as many as 11 of them and now Southgate has a difficult decision to make too.

There is likely to be some rotation for the Three Lions as he looks to keep his squad fresh in a game which it would not be disastrous to lose, but he must also strike a fine balance with the momentum England have built up so far.

Arguably the biggest decision surrounds captain Harry Kane, who currently leads the Golden Boot race and will be desperate to start again given his unabashed desire to win it.

Fresh from becoming only the third England player to score a World Cup hat-trick - joining an illustrious club alongside Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker - Kane was taken off shortly after the hour mark against Panama and so should still be relatively fresh.

The likes of Jamie Vardy, Danny Welbeck and Marcus Rashford provide backup options, though, while other players such as Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Gary Cahill could come in without significantly damaging the standard of the starting XI.

Kyle Walker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek both have yellow cards to their names and so could be rested as a result.

For Belgium, Lukaku is expected to be among those rested despite having matched Kane's feat of scoring at least two goals in the opening two World Cup games - a feat only managed twice before this World Cup, and not since 1954.

Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens could also be left out, with the likes of Michy Batshuayi, Vincent Kompany, Mousa Dembele and Thomas Vermaelen all available as replacements.

England possible starting lineup:
Pickford; Jones, Stones, Cahill; Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, Dier, Lingard, Rose; Rashford, Kane

Belgium possible starting lineup:
Courtois; Vermaelen, Boyata, Kompany; Dembele, Fellaini, Chadli, T Hazard, Tielemans, Januzaj; Batshuayi


Head To Head

Belgium have only ever won one of the previous 21 meetings between these two sides inside normal time, and that came back in 1936 when the Red Devils ran out 3-2 winners.

England did lose in a penalty shootout in 1998, but they have won both meetings since then, including the only one this century when Welbeck scored the only goal of the game in June 2012.

There have been two previous World Cup clashes between these two sides too; in 1954 when they played out a 4-4 thriller and in 1990 when David Platt's acrobatic 119th-minute effort saw England avoid penalties and reach the quarter-finals.


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We say: England 1-1 Belgium

There are so many factors to this match which make it a very difficult one to call, from the expected glut of changes to the fine margins which could decide the group placings. Both sides have been impressive so far, though, and with Belgium expected to make more changes than England, that could make for an even contest.


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Who will win Thursday's World Cup Group G clash between England and Belgium?

England
Draw
Belgium
England
30.6%
Draw
45.0%
Belgium
24.3%
Eden Hazard in action for Belgium on June 2, 2018
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