KALININGRAD, Russia — England and Belgium are set to play a so-called dead rubber in this Russian exclave on Thursday night.
A dead rubber is a soccer match that is of no real consequence to the teams involved, and this was the happy sort, since both England and Belgium had already qualified for the knockout round of the World Cup. Both teams easily dispatched their first two opponents, the vastly overmatched Tunisia and Panama, without much stress.
[LIVE: Follow our coverage of England vs. Belgium]
There is something at stake, though: First place in Group G is on the line, and the winner would be in line for a potential quarterfinal against Brazil, while the second-place team would face what appears to be, on paper, a far easier path to the semifinals. But in a World Cup in which Germany is on its way home, trying to do anything but play well and get a positive result seems like a mistake.
Entering play in Russia, Belgium assumed the role of sexy dark horse, a star-studded team led by Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City and Eden Hazard of Chelsea that had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals. England was viewed as a work in progress, a young team trying to change its culture from sullen, strategically-challenged underachievers to fearless lovers of the game.
Which one is better, or good enough to go deep into the knockout rounds? That remains a mystery. Both teams poured in goals against Tunisia and Panama, but that was Tunisia and Panama. Thursday night’s match will offer few clues to what lies ahead, and what might be possible.
“I have always considered ourselves outsiders with an opportunity to win,” Belgium defender Thomas Vermaelen said on Wednesday. “It’s important we don’t look ahead too much.”
England Coach Gareth Southgate stated the obvious: There are far bigger challenges ahead. “We can’t consider ourselves a top team until we start to beat some of those top teams,” he said.
In other words, these teams have no idea who they are yet, either. There is enough hope and healthy skepticism to stretch across the Strait of Dover, which separates these countries.
Here is a sampling of it.
Why England Will Win the World Cup
England is great at set pieces. England came into this tournament without a goal from a corner kick in 72 attempts at major tournaments, dating to 2010. Southgate, who took over the team in 2016, had the revolutionary idea of practicing them — a lot. So far, so good. England has four goals off corner kicks, including one that resulted from a penalty kick earned on a corner against Panama, and another from a free kick. Defenses are disorganized at big tournaments, where top players are often thrown together for only a few weeks. That makes set pieces golden opportunities to score. England clearly knows how to take advantage.