There has been much debate among England football fans, journalists, pundits and former players about how England should approach the final group game against Belgium. Should they play for second place in the group, and a supposedly easier route to the final, or go for the win and maintain momentum?
My point of view is that England must go for the win and maintain momentum.
Let’s take a look at what the so-called easier route entails. By finishing second in Group G, the thinking goes, and winning their last 16 tie, England would avoid either Brazil or Germany in the quarter-finals should the former win their group, the latter come second in theirs, and both teams come through their respective last 16 matches.
If that series of events were to unfold, England would instead face the likes of Switzerland and Mexico in the quarter-finals. The problem with that logic is that it ignores the fact that whoever England play beyond the last 16 will be one of the best teams in the world, and that at some point, England will have to beat the best teams if they are to win the World Cup, which is surely the ultimate aim.
Whether England finish first or second in Group G, they will have to play one of Senegal, Japan or Colombia in the last 16, and it is the height of arrogance to assume that they will get past any of those three easily. The fact is that they will not. Any of the three will be tough opponents, and all are capable of beating England. Added to which, if either England (or Belgium) were to engineer a second-place finish, it would provide added motivation for their opponents to teach them a lesson for their arrogance.
Only two years ago in Euro 2016, Roy Hodgson made six changes for England’s last group game against Slovenia, perhaps surmising that by finishing second they would avoid Belgium and have an easier time of it against Iceland. England drew and did face Iceland, a so-called minnow side, but lost, which proves beyond any doubt that once you get out of the group stage any team can beat you.
Now, let’s assume England do finish second and do beat their last 16 opponents. They would then face a team of the calibre of Mexico, Switzerland, Serbia or Sweden in the quarter-final, all of whom are more than capable of beating England, and that is to assume that results go the way most people think they will. Plus, it is not out of the question that Brazil or Germany will end up in that half of the draw anyway.
But let’s say that England does go on and win their quarter-final. Potential semi-finalists could include either Spain or Croatia (Spain being the most likely) and while anything can happen at that stage it is hard to see England beating Spain at this time.
Now let’s look at the other route.
England’s last-16 opponents would be the same trio of Senegal, Japan or Colombia and if they win then the assumption is that they will have to face either Brazil or Germany in the quarter-finals.
Both Germany and Brazil are beatable. Yes, they would be favourites to beat England but neither team is as strong as they were in the past; their respective group game performances have shown that and England would have huge momentum behind them. They would have topped their group, won their last-16 game and would surely feel they can beat any team by that stage.
If England win that game, they would then face one of Portugal, Uruguay, France or Argentina, none of whom have shown to date that they are capable of winning the tournament. France has been underwhelming at best, Argentina is there to be beaten, while Portugal is over-reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo. Only Uruguay can really be considered to be playing at their best.
The advantage of beating Belgium, or at least topping the group, is that England gains even more momentum. Their confidence would be far higher than if they lost to Belgium and any opponent they face after that will be tough but beatable.
England must go all out to beat Belgium. Anything less sends the wrong message to their potential opposition and sews doubt within the players themselves.