Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez has made the startling admission that beating England in his side’s final Group G match is not a priority for his team.
The Red Devils and the Three Lions have arrived in Kaliningrad with six points out of six and passage to the last 16 already secured.
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Results elsewhere and the way the knockout draw has fallen so far have led to widespread suggestions the runner up out of England and Belgium would be in a better position to blaze a trail into the latter stages.
It could make for a surreal contest on Friday, with both bosses expected to ring the changes and protect players from potential suspensions.
Martinez has alluded to such a move, with Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku set to be one Belgian given a breather against the English.
Lukaku has been in superb form so far in Russia, scoring a brace in each of the wins over Panama and Tunisia.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) June 23, 2018
But the 25-year-old sustained external ligament damage to his left ankle in the latter 5-2 victory and, although Martinez reported good news overall on his number nine’s progress, he seems set to sit out on Thursday with qualification for the knockout stages already secured.
“With Romelu Lukaku we had very good news on the scan. He had no further damage but it is still uncomfortable,” Martinez told his pre-match news conference on the eve of the game.
“We’ll will make a final assessment tonight for him to be involved or not.
“At the moment he is still in the recovery phase and had a really difficult knock against Tunisia.
“We are happy that tomorrow is probably one day too early, but I don’t think he is going to take any longer than that.”
Martinez has already floated the idea of wholesale changes against England, in a game where he claims victory is not a “priority” for his side.
— Belgian Red Devils (@BelRedDevils) June 27, 2018
Lukaku lies joint second alongside Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the World Cup Golden Boot, one shy of England captain Harry Kane, who has five.
“At the moment we are qualified and I think that was the priority that we were chasing for,” Martinez said.
“Now we need to look into our individual players. Tomorrow we want to perform well but the priority is not to win.
“There are players on yellow cards. I don’t think it would be professional for us to risk those players missing a knockout game.
“It’s very important for us to protect and give every player the best possible programme to be in the best condition for the knockout games.
“I believe in every player in this squad so it would be quite stupid for me not to believe in these players tomorrow.
While Matinez’s idea about resting players certainly makes sense, there is risk in halting the momentum of a player like Lukaku, who has been in irresistible goal-scoring form in Russia.
The last time England and Belgium met at a World Cup, David Platt volleyed a famous extra-time winner to send Bobby Robson’s side into the quarter-finals if Italia 90.
Although that contest still lingers in the memories of supporters from both countries, Martinez feels the state of play in the group and the fact that 12 of his own squad are British based will lend a very different feel to proceedings
“It brought a lot of pain to Belgium people and fans. This is a different game – a celebration game. At that point it was one or the other,” the ex-Wigan Athletic and Everton manager added.
“It would have been very different if Harry Kane had not scored in the last minute against Tunisia [England’s opening 2-1 win] – then Platt’s goal might have been a bit more of a memory for everyone.”
Whichever side comes out on top between England and Belgium will face the runner-up of Group H – with Colombia, Senegal and Japan in a three-way battle to fill the top two spots.