England will complete their last day of training in Repino on Friday, before taking the short drive down to St Petersburg on Saturday to play the game they never wanted to play.
The play-off against Belgium on Saturday afternoon will determine who finishes third in this year’s competition, but both teams will bitterly wish they were at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Sunday evening instead.
That sense of regret, as well as the deflation from losing two tight semi-finals, will likely sap any serious competitive motivation out of the occasion. Both teams will just be looking forward to flying home.
Which all sounds very unlikely, and slightly out of place, in a World Cup of intense emotions and committed competition. But then England and Belgium have already played out one such game this tournament, a gentle training-ground 1-0 win for Belgium in Kaliningrad at the end of the group stage. That win arguably killed Belgium’s tournament, because without it they would have finished second and faced Colombia, Sweden and Croatia – as England did – rather than Japan, Brazil and then France, who of course knocked them out on Tuesday night.
Now the two teams will meet again, both likely to make similar changes to their group meeting. Making this the rematch that no-one wanted to see.
Southgate confirmed after England’s defeat to Croatia that some players who ran themselves into the turf in the Luzhniki will not be able to go again in St Petersburg on Saturday. “I think a physical part of that is going to have a huge bearing. We only have a two day recovery and I’m sure some of the guys won’t be able to get out there,” he said. “I would be really surprised if Kieran Trippier is out there, Ashley Young too. Jordan Henderson is also feeling his hamstring. So we will have to make changes and do what’s right. But we’ll assess them before picking a team.”
The biggest selection question concerns the Golden Boot race. Harry Kane is currently in pole position for the Golden Boot, two goals ahead of Romelu Lukaku. He may well want to play to assure that he wins that, but then he did not look at his best against Croatia, missing a crucial chance to put England 2-0 up late in the first half. Southgate may want to give minutes to Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford or Danny Welbeck instead.
Kane is normally hungry to play and score as much as possible but even he did not sound up for this game when discussing it after the Croatia game on Tuesday night.
“It is not something I am really thinking about right now to be honest,” Kane said. “It is not a game we wanted to be in. It is what it is, and so we will try to play that game with as much pride as we can and try to finish on a high. But we are still going to be hurting because that game is only in a few days’ time. We will still be thinking of this semi-final defeat and what could have been.”
The Belgian players, arguably the best team in the competition before their elimination, will surely feel the same way.