World Cup 2018: Should England fear Belgium?

And so it comes to this.

England play Belgium in their final game in World Cup Group G on Thursday, with both teams able to top the group.

With qualification already secured – and it remains unclear if finishing second in the group creates an ‘easier’ route through the knockout phase – Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has already stated he will make “major changes” for the game.

But what lies in wait for Gareth Southgate’s side? And who may they now come up against?

Kane’s biggest rival?

With a hat-trick against Panama, England striker Harry Kane jumped to the top of the goalscoring charts with his country’s first World Cup treble since 1986.

And he may come up against his biggest rival for the Golden Boot on Thursday. Belgium’s record goalscorer Romelu Lukaku took his tally to 40 goals in 71 caps with a double against Tunisia on Saturday, becoming the first player since Diego Maradona in 1986 to score twice in back-to-back World Cup matches.

No player in Belgium’s history had scored four goals at a World Cup before, and Lukaku has now netted 17 times in his past 11 appearances for the national side.

Despite that record, Belgian journalist Kristof Terreur told BBC 5 live before Saturday’s match that the Manchester United striker still divides opinion in Belgium.

“Some like him and some don’t,” he said. “When he’s not performing they say he’s someone who is of Congolese descent.

“We still have that fear for strangers – black guys aren’t really accepted. He’s the first black star of our team.”

In an emotional and open interview last week with the Players’ Tribune,Lukaku accepted “some people in my own country want to see me fail”.

But former Chelsea team-mate Frank Lampard believes the 25-year-old is showing he is at the top of his game.

Speaking after Saturday’s win over Tunisia, he told BBC One: “Lukaku is so confident right now. For his second goal, he dinks it over the goalkeeper with his weaker foot and he’s celebrating before it even crosses the line – supremely confident.”

Former England captain Alan Shearer – who scored twice at the 1998 World Cup and was top scorer at Euro ’96 – says winning the Golden Boot would be life-changing for Lukaku or Kane.

“Scoring goals in a tournament can be life-changing, career-changing,” he told BBC Radio 5 live.

“After Euro ’96 I was no longer Alan Shearer. I was Alan Shearer, Golden Boot winner. You go up against some big hitters and you come out on top and it gives you huge confidence for the rest of your career. It puts your name on the global stage.

“You can say that Lukaku has only scored against Panama and Tunisia but it gives you great confidence and he has an unbelievable opportunity now. He will have been thinking every day for weeks, ‘if I get off to a good start I can win the Golden Boot’.”

The creator in chief

While Lukaku is leading the line superbly, stand-in captain Eden Hazard has been equally impressive from his number 10 role.

The Chelsea forward also scored twice against Tunisia and has been involved in 23 goals in his past 21 appearances for Belgium (11 goals, 12 assists).

With Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany missing the opening two games because of injury, Hazard has also shown leadership, telling Lukaku off at half-time of the Panama game for “hiding” and “going missing”.

Lukaku responded by scoring twice after the break.

Hazard was taken off against the Tunisians with a slight knock and may be one of the regular starters to miss out against England.

“Belgium have put a marker down here – without a doubt,” said Shearer.

“We’ve been speaking about Hazard, Lukaku and Co going forward – and they’ve done it. Belgium look red hot going forward. They could cause any team problems with their attacking players.”

Martinez’s marvellous run

Belgium were unbeaten in qualifying and wins in their opening two games in Russia mean the Red Devils have won 11 of their 12 competitive matches under Martinez.

They have scored 51 goals and conceded just eight in those games.

Martinez took over in August 2016, after Belgium reached the quarter-finals at both the World Cup of 2014 and Euro 2016. When he was presented to the media he said his team had “the world at their feet” and promised he would turn Lukaku “into a world-class striker”.

Job done?

“People in Belgium know this is a golden generation,” said West Ham defender Pablo Zabaleta on BBC One.

“All the players play for big teams and there will be a lot of expectation back home. I think they’re one of the favourites to go far in this World Cup.

“With the players Belgium have going forward, they can hurt anyone – Kevin de Bruyne can find the pass, Hazard can run at defenders and Lukaku can provide the finish.

“They’re a very dangerous side.”

Strength in depth? We shall see

It’s not just Belgium’s starting XI who have impressed. While commentating on the 5-2 win over Tunisia, Chris Sutton said that – if he was English – Tottenham midfielder Moussa Dembele would start for England despite only appearing for 16 minutes in the tournament so far.

Experienced performers Thomas Vermaelen, Kompany and Marouane Fellaini have all been left out of the starting XIs so far, while Chelsea striker Michy Batshuayi came off the bench to score – as well as miss a host of chances – against Tunisia.

The 24-year-old had six shots – more than any other player, and the most by a substitute in a World Cup match since Germany’s Andre Schurrle fired in seven against Algeria in 2014.

So if Martinez does make a host of changes on Thursday night, it may not matter too much.

“It shows the strength of the Belgium national team that they can take off their leading all-time goalscorer and bring on someone who can get six good chances,” said former Chelsea forward Didier Drogba on BBC One.

“Batshuayi would have put more of them away if it was a closer game. The one he does score, it’s very difficult.”

Who would you pick for England?

My England starting XI v Belgium

Choose who you would pick in the England starting XI to face Belgium in Russia – and then share it with your friends using our team selector.


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