On the surface of it all, there may not be that much to today’s third-place play-off between England and Belgium at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. After all, who wants to finish third?
This is probably a match nobody really wants to be in, especially considering that players on both sides will still be feeling the emotional effects of their semi-final defeats.
But if there’s anything that could perhaps still fire up this encounter, it’s the race for the Golden Boot, the award for the tournament’s top goal-scorer. As it stands going into today’s game, England’s Harry Kane has six goals and he’s just two ahead of Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.
Occasions such as this, when there’s not much at stake, where teams ring the changes, the football tends to be more open and as such it allows strikers like Kane and Lukaku the opportunity to add to their tally. Both players have had their moments at Russia 2018, but both were disappointing in their respective semi-finals.
Many would suggest that Kane hardly deserves the gong in that his six goals consist of three penalties and a lucky deflection, but that is the nature of this award: it doesn’t matter how they are scored.
For us, as fans though, it may just add an interesting sidebar to watching a match we don’t really want to.
In reflection, as England and Belgium bid farewell to Russia 2018, it’s perhaps the appropriate time to single out a few names, some of whom cemented their status as being among the best in the world and others who announced their arrival on the international stage.
For Belgium, Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
Goalkeeper Courtois was solid and reliable throughout, while his steely, acrobatic performance in the quarter-final victory over Brazil will linger in the memory for a long, long time. It’s no secret the Belgium number one is high up on Real Madrid’s shopping list.
Hazard has often been referred to as being right up there with the best in the world, though never really quite measuring up to Messi and Ronaldo; but his display at Russia 2018 may just have elevated him a little more and there’s no doubt he will be on the radar of both Spanish giants for next season.
De Bruyne’s performance against Brazil will probably stand out as one of the highlights of the tournament (like Kylian Mbappe’s against Argentina): quick of thought and quick in feet, the Man City midfielder is a treat to watch.
For England, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, central defender Harry Maguire and the hardworking Jordan Henderson.
Pickford’s rise to success with England has been nothing short of meteoric. There may have been questions around him going into the tournament, but he has arguably been their best player. It’s not just his saves, and some of them really crucial - like the late, last-gasp stop against Colombia - but his assured, assertive presence has imbued the team with confidence.
Maguire? Where has he come from? I remember him playing for Hull City a few years ago and what caught my eye immediately was his composure in possession; there aren’t many defenders with that type of touch, control and smarts on the ball. No doubt, it was this very trait that gave him the nod as a front-line starter in Gareth Southgate’s England team - and, given Maguire’s performances at Russia 2018, the manager has been vindicated.
As a Liverpool supporter, I’ve always had a soft spot for Henderson. In saying so, though, it’s also true the midfielder has never really fully convinced everybody. But, at the World Cup, on football’s biggest stage, he has definitely proven that he is a combative midfielder of quality, a leader of note, and a supreme, unselfish presence, prepared to run his feet to the bone in support of the team.