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Belgium and England have each played three games at this World Cup, combining for five wins, and we still don’t know all that much about either of them. Are their strong starts legitimate or the upshot of a soft draw and an obsolete final game? Are they true title contenders? Or outsiders? Are they overrated?
They faced each other Thursday and Belgium won 1-0 but we are none the wiser.
Because of a bizarre quirk of this tournament, it wasn’t in either team’s interest to actually win. They played accordingly.
For four years, these teams had planned and toiled to be at their best for the World Cup. So that they’d be at the peak of their form and conditioning, in order to produce their most optimal performance and … lose?
In the very last of the group stage games, the scenario was uncanny. Both teams had already won their two games and assured themselves of passage into the round-of-16. Indeed, both had beat up on Tunisia and Panama by a combined score of 16-4 over those four games. Only Tunisia-England was close, decided by Harry Kane’s 2-1 injury-time winner. And in the process, both teams strengthened their credentials as outsiders for the title.
Yet what did we really learn? Tunisia is ranked 51st in the world by ELO and Panama 54th, leading you to wonder how they even made it into a tournament of the world’s 32 best teams. (Insert United States men’s national team joke here. Or a Canada one, for balance.)
Their final game presented the usual conundrum for teams already through with a game to spare: Do you try to keep the momentum going with your starters, or cycle in reserves to fight for a place and give the regulars a rest?
But then the larger decision was whether they should try to win at all.
Because of a few unexpected outcomes and results – Argentina coming second in its group; Germany’s elimination – one side of the knockout stage is stacked while the other is unusually soft. Winning Group G means a tougher road to the final. Coming second improves your chances.
The winner of Group G would face Japan in the round-of-16, an undaunting task; whereas the runner-up would get a trickier Colombia. But from there on, the winner of the Japan game gets the victor in Brazil-Mexico, and would then face the survivor among a quarter of world powers in Uruguay, Portugal, France and Argentina in the semifinals. Beat Colombia, however, and you’d encounter either Sweden or Switzerland and then likely a struggling Spain or perhaps Croatia – or even Russia or Denmark.
One route is much more treacherous than the other.
So with both teams even on goal difference and goals scored going into the game, they had an improbable choice to make. Win on the day and hope for the best? Or make an intentionally diminished effort and lose, but perhaps enable more winning later?
It’s really the sort of equation a team shouldn’t ever have to calculate – much like tanking in some American sports.
Both teams opted for diluted lineups. With Belgium making nine changes and England eight.
That alone ensured that this game wouldn’t give an accurate account of how strong these teams were either. And that gave you a strong premonition of what unfold. While you’d think playing your hungry reserves safeguarded against throwing the game, those reserves understood that they weren’t to try too hard.
Everybody, of course, had said the right things about wanting to win the game and do the honorable thing. And on some baser level, soccer players are hardwired to put the ball in the goal. But until they’re face-to-face with a goalkeeper, it apparently isn’t all that hard to dull that ragged edge.
For most of the game, Belgium seemed the most sincere in its attempt to score goals. Youri Thielemans hit an early rocket from distance that Jordan Pickford only just saved. And on a scramble in front of the England goal, Michy Batshuayi thrashed around in his attempt to poke the ball home, before Gary Cahill saved it off the line – aided by goal-line technology.
But until Adnan Januzaj scored the winner, there was seemingly another scoreline in play as well.
Absent any goals or a winner, the fair play tiebreaker would be the deciding factor in the rankings. So when Thielemans took an early yellow card, Belgian fans apparently cheered for losing points in the fair play rankings. The booking put Belgium ahead 4-2 on yellow cards. Or behind. Or whatever.
It all led to confounding scenarios.
Leander Dendoncker took a yellow as well, on a not terribly necessary foul – much like that of Thielemans. That suggested that if the game was going to end in a tie, the Belgians figured they’d sooner lose the fair play tiebreaker.
But Januzaj did get the lone goal in the 51st minute on a terrific strike. He turned Danny Rose inside-out in the box and whipped his shot past Pickford.
Dries Mertens came close with a late volley. But Batshuayi’s post-goal self-own, however, probably gave a more honest account of the situation for Belgium.
For England’s part, Marcus Rashford got off some gamely attempts that all missed the target, while his teammates joined him for a late push.
When it all mercifully ended, this had been a game free of intensity, any urge to win, pace, incisiveness or cohesion. All we really know for having lived through it is that Belgium’s reserves are maybe slightly superior to England’s reserves. Provided that the game doesn’t really matter.
How will Belgium do against Japan, which cunningly survived on a loss but a fair play advantage? Who knows? We haven’t seen Belgium tested yet. And what are England’s chances versus Colombia. Your guess is as good as anybody’s!
Because going into the knockout stages, we still don’t know how good two of the most talented teams at the World Cup really are.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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