Belgium claim bronze in forgettable but decent affair

The unfortunate nature of third-placed play-offs is that their intrigue is based on things which are not relevant to the outcome of the tournament. Both sides are already eliminated when the clash takes place, and the nature of semi-final defeat means that they have often come from agonising losses. This particular third-placed play-off, between England and Belgium, didn’t look any different. England had a chance to avenge their group stage defeat to the Belgians, but they hadn’t looked too worried when they were losing and it hardly seemed likely that they had been waiting for their opportunity to exact revenge. In the end they didn’t get their revenge, and they didn’t seem to care too deeply. There was also the golden boot battle, although it hardly seemed likely that Romelu Lukaku would score the two goals needed to wrest the title of the tournament’s top scorer from slightly lucky English skipper Harry Kane. He didn’t score any.

Bizarrely, neither side took the field in their traditional colours, even though it was hard to see any clash between Belgium’s traditional red and England’s traditional white. Still, FIFA decided a kit clash existed, so Belgium wore yellow and England, oddly, wore red. Such bureaucratic matters didn’t seem to trouble Belgium, and it didn’t take them long to find the back of the net. Lukaku received the ball in the centre of the field, and one well-placed ball unlocked England’s defence and picked out Nacer Chadli. Chadli was streaming into space on the left, and his cross fell perfectly for Thomas Meunier in a dangerous position. Meunier’s incisive run allowed him to receive the ball on the edge of the six-yard box, and he had no trouble putting it past Jordan Pickford from such close range.

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Thomas Meunier (right) scores Belgium’s first goal past Jordan Pickford. The goal left England needing to chase the game, a task they didn’t apply themselves to until the last 20 minutes.

Then the game broke down a little, as neither team really threatened. Mainly, Belgium’s moves looked dangerous and then fell apart after attempts at telepathic passing which left a lot to be desired. The prime example of this was Kevin de Bruyne’s no-look backheel for Lukaku, which was delivered into a dangerous spot. It would have been a brilliant play, had the big striker not been positioned some five metres from where de Bruyne’s pass was aimed. One chance came when Lukaku’s pass somehow slipped through to de Bruyne, who seemed surprised to be receiving the ball, let off a half-hearted shot and nearly scored with the half-hearted shot as said shot was deflected dangerously. In defence, Vincent Kompany perfectly split the middle of Jan Vertonghen and Chadli, and everyone could only watch in disbelief and slight disinterest as the ball rolled out for a throw-in. In the middle of it all, Lukaku had a genuine chance one-on-one with Pickford, but he fluffed his lines with a heavy touch and the ball was claimed easily by the English goalkeeper.

As it progressed, the game developed into a collection of disjointed moments which didn’t really take a defined pattern. Belgium were mostly on top, but they never really broke past England’s five-man defence, and sometimes England looked decent too. Both teams gave the impression that the score didn’t really matter, and it was easy to forget that Belgium were ahead 1-0 as the teams went about their business. They weren’t exactly uncaring, and it wasn’t exactly poor quality, but it was easily forgettable football punctuated by the occasional moment of skill or the occasional attacking gaffe. Such gaffes were usually met with indifference, and such moments of skill inevitably came to nothing. There weren’t many chances, but those that did come often arrived with no warning, and were sometimes even accidents (like when Youri Tielemans miscued a shot and presented Toby Alderweireld with an unexpected chance to volley inside the box).

The start of the second half didn’t represent much of a deviation from the haphazard pattern of the first. Any chances, like Jesse Lingard’s dangerous ball across goal which missed Kane’s diving attempt at volleying it home, weren’t telegraphed, and both teams were about as sloppy as ever. Belgium took a particularly pointless corner as Eden Hazard rolled the ball to Dries Mertens, who attempted a cross. It was blocked by the man given the role of blocking the cross: and flew out for another corner. In short, a few seconds had been wasted, and absolutely nothing had been gained by either side. A few minutes later, both Kane and Kompany ended up on the ground after Kane attempted a volley and just fell on his backside. It wasn’t clear why Kompany was down, but there was little time to dwell on it as Belgium attempted a dangerous-looking counter-attack which fell through.

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Eric Dier (left) watches as club teammate Toby Alderweireld (centre) clears his chip off the goal line and out. Dier’s shot was the closest England came to getting an equaliser.

Suddenly (neither side was exerting enough pressure on the other to actually create anything that wasn’t sudden), England nearly scored. Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford combined beautifully to play Dier through, and the powerful midfielder managed to chip Thibaut Courtois. Unfortunately for him, Alderweireld reacted quicker than anyone, and he was already sliding in to clear the shot off the line. At that point, the momentum of the game turned. Belgium had been turning the ball over all game and suffering no consequences. Then England, 70 minutes in, finally started to look threatening after receiving errant passes, and the results were instantaneous. They had some dangerous set pieces and a few good chances, and they looked set to break through.

Counter-intuitively, England’s late offensive tipped the balance of the match firmly in Belgium’s favour. Space began to open up when they won the ball back, and they looked increasingly dangerous on the break. De Bruyne, Hazard and Mertens started to combine, and Meunier nearly nabbed a second when he slammed a volley to Pickford’s right and forced the English goalkeeper into an excellent save. Pickford’s face was a mix of exasperation and petulance as the ball moved back up the field. Eventually, one of Belgium’s counter-attacks broke through, killing off England’s hopes once and for all. De Bruyne provided the pass, splitting the defence open and picking out the run of Hazard, who gave Pickford no chance as he stroked the ball into the bottom corner.

After that, there was very little to play for, as Belgium commanded the rest of the game and continued to look the more dangerous side as the increasingly ragged-looking English stretched themselves further and further in pursuit of a goal that would never come. At one point Kompany surged forward from his home in the heart of defence, pushing into the box and hoping for a cross from Hazard. Hazard’s cross wasn’t great, and Kompany’s avaricious attempt to hunt a goal left him caught out of position. It didn’t matter too much, as England’s slow build-up allowed the veteran defender to sheepishly trot back into place. Belgium’s win was a nice way to finish their tournament, and the bronze medals they received are a nice trinket to mark a truly great generation of Belgian footballers. For England, who had nothing to lose and have a bright future ahead of them, the loss is unlikely to sting too badly. In the end, it didn’t really matter to anyone, but the game wasn’t too bad. That’s about as good as third-place play-offs get.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Belgium 2 (Meunier 4, E Hazard 82)
England 0
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Tielemans (Dembélé 78), Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 39); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Mertens 60), E Hazard.
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Jones, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Loftus-Cheek (Alli 84), Dier, Delph, Rose (Lingard 46); Sterling (Rashford 46), Kane.

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Belgium’s players celebrate after receiving their bronze medals. The medals will be a nice trinket for a great Belgian team, but they won’t make up for the disappointment of a semi-final defeat.

Top 5
1. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier wasn’t always as clinical as he could have been, but he looked fresher than anyone else thanks to the suspension that ruled him out of the semi-final and he had a massive impact on the game as a result. He found the scoresheet early, and he created plenty of opportunities for Belgium with his hard running.
2. John Stones (England)
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Stones was responsible for England’s semi-final defeat, but he was certainly responsible for Croatia’s winning goal. The third-place play-off gave him a chance to atone for his costly error, and he did so with a strong defensive performance. If something needed blocking, he was there, and he denied Belgium on a few occasions.
3. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne’s plans didn’t always come off, mostly because his teammates often failed to understand their role in them, but he had the ball in the final third more than any other Belgian and he was always dangerous. He was the only Belgian capable of breaking down England’s massed defence, and when he caught them on the break Belgium always threatened to score.
4. Eric Dier (England)
Dier played more of a back seat role throughout the tournament, and he seized his chance when he was drafted into the team for Jordan Henderson. He came into his own in the second half, bossing the midfield and using his physicality and skill to give Belgium some real problems.
5. Youri Tielemans (Belgium)
This game may mark the end of Belgium’s golden generation, with most of their starters set to be past their prime when Qatar 2022 rolls around. In Tielemans, however, the Belgians may have found someone who can become one of their key players in years to come. His influence waned in the second half, but Tielemans showed that Belgian football still has a bright future with a good effort.

France hold firm to keep Belgium at bay

In the dying moments of Belgium’s highly-anticipated semi-final clash with France, French midfield enforcer Paul Pogba stood in the corner. The French were seeking to rule out a Belgian comeback, and Pogba was straddling the ball with a number of Belgians attempting to shove him out of the way so they could force the ball upfield. They never got the chance. Eventually, Pogba committed a foul. A few seconds later, the final whistle blew. France were in the World Cup final. In the end, it was a rather anticlimactic finish, with Belgium never really testing France after going behind. A well-taken corner and a simple header was the foundation on which a simple win was built.

France went on the front foot from the first blast of Andrés Cunha’s whistle, with Kylian Mbappé attempting an enterprising run down the right wing just seconds after kick-off. It was Belgium, however, who seized the early initiative. The Belgians took control of possession and territory, with France happy to sit back and absorb the pressure. Eventually, chances began to arrive. Eden Hazard had a couple of dangerous shots, one of which was just deflected over the bar by Raphaël Varane’s header. A Belgian corner fell for Toby Alderweireld, who tested Hugo Lloris by wheeling around onto his left foot and sending a one-time shot fizzing towards goal, but the French keeper’s diving save prevented him from finding the back of the net. Belgium were starting to ramp up the pressure and France needed to respond.

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Samuel Umtiti celebrates after scoring France’s first goal from a well-delivered corner. Belgium weren’t able to recover the deficit as France held on for a 1-0 win.

They did. The French started to find their touch on the break as the match went on, and Olivier Giroud had a series of particularly dangerous chances. Giroud’s frustration, borne from not scoring in the tournament despite his key role as France’s central striker, only increased as chances were missed and the scores stayed level. As the half drew to a close, French right-back Benjamin Pavard combined with Mbappé and forced Thibaut Courtois into a tough save, but it was France’s hulking frontman who had the lion’s share of the chances. It was still scoreless at half-time, but it seemed inevitable that someone would find the back of the net in the second half. It was the French who broke through.

A few minutes after half time, France won a corner, which allowed Antoine Griezmann to whip the ball into the box. He drove his corner close to goal, where two teammates were waiting. Pogba didn’t get a touch on it. Samuel Umtiti did. The French centre-back managed to beat Marouane Fellaini in the air, and his glancing, close-range header was impossible for Courtois to stop. Shortly after Umtiti’s header, the French threatened again, finding space thanks to Mbappé and manufacturing a series of opportunities. Mbappé’s ball for Blaise Matuidi allowed Matuidi to shoot from the edge of the box, and when Belgium failed to adequately clear the blocked shot France threatened again. Mbappé’s backheel for Giroud gave the big striker some space, but his luck was out and his shot was desperately blocked.

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Hugo Lloris (left) flies to punch the ball away from Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini was Belgium’s main target for their crosses, but France did well to ensure that he, and striker Romelu Lukaku, weren’t able to impact the match.

A couple of crosses into the box provided Belgium’s best chances for redemption. Kevin de Bruyne managed to hit his volley goalward from just inside the box, but his side-footed shot was poorly hit and Lloris gathered it comfortably. Lloris wasn’t quite so comfortable a few minutes later as he dived in an attempt to stop Fellaini’s header, but the header missed and the deficit remained. Crosses had soon become Belgium’s primary mode of attack, with Dries Mertens, de Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld all whipping the ball into the box but not finding enough targets in the middle to really trouble the French defence. Most of the time, Paul Pogba, Umtiti or Varane managed to head them away.

When a couple of de Bruyne’s crosses caused a bit of chaos in the French box, it looked like the game was building to an exciting climax. It wasn’t. Belgium’s chances began to dry up, their frustrations mounted and France killed the game easily despite six minutes of additional time being allocated. They barely even had to defend, as space began to open up for them on the break and they began to target the Belgian defence with their dangerous counter-attacks. In the last few minutes, Courtois was forced into a couple of diving saves to keep France from doubling their lead. At the other end of the pitch, Lloris was a virtual spectator as Belgium’s golden generation couldn’t put it together. They came from 2-0 down against Japan, and they upset Brazil, but they couldn’t get past the final hurdle as France battle on. They weren’t spectacular, but 1-0 was enough. Didier Deschamps’ men know how to win, and now they’re in the final.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
France 1 (Umtiti 51)
Belgium 0
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (Tolisso 86); Giroud (N’Zonzi 85).
Belgium (3-5-2): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Chadli (Batshuayi 90+1), Dembélé (Mertens 60), Witsel, Fellaini (Carrasco 80), de Bruyne; Lukaku, E Hazard.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba played a big role in the latter stages, when Belgium were attempting their aerial bombardment of the French goal. He made sure he was in the box for every cross, and he was always able to head the ball clear and keep his side’s lead safe. Combined with his usual brilliance in midfield, it made for a good performance.
2. Raphaël Varane (France)
His defensive partner may have scored the goal, but Varane was the man underpinning France’s solidity. He and Umtiti complemented each other well, and Varane did some good defensive work at key moments in the game to keep Belgium at bay. He defended Romelu Lukaku brilliantly, and made it look easy at the same time.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Umtiti seemed to find one of the few sure-fire ways of beating Courtois: slam it in from close range. Short of that, beating the Belgian keeper seems nearly impossible. France didn’t test him too much, but he was always in position to make the saves he needed to and he threw in some very high-quality stops to keep the deficit at one goal.
4. Hugo Lloris (France)
Like Courtois, Lloris didn’t have too much work to do despite Belgium’s control of the ball, but the French captain did it well and made sure that, on the rare occasion his defence was breached, he was around to make the save. His form, like that of his side, has been steadily improving and his strong performance will give him confidence for the final.
5. Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
Alderweireld was one of Belgium’s main ball carriers thanks to France’s solid defensive structure, and the centre-back managed to do more than most of his teammates. He provided their best chance of the game with a very tough but well-hit first-time shot and he was reliable when called upon to defend.

2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-Final Preview – France vs Belgium

After 60 matches, 157 goals and plenty of excitement, only four teams remain in the battle for global football’s most coveted trophy. Many of the World Cup’s pre-tournament favourites have bowed out, and the final four consists of Belgium and Croatia (both of whom have never won the trophy) and England, who won in 1966 but haven’t looked like doing so again in the intervening years. Rounding out the quartet are the French, who are the only main pre-tournament favourite to make it this far but are no certainty to lift the trophy against some very dangerous opposition. The two semi-finals are very open, and there are certainly no guarantees as to who will be victorious when all is said and done. With two thrilling semi-finals contests to look forward to, and some brilliant players on display, the rest of this tournament won’t be short on excitement. It will be fascinating to see how it pans out, starting with the high-stakes clash between France and Belgium.

France vs Belgium

Form Guide

France
Group Stage
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Behich 81 og), Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
France 1 (Mbappé 34), Peru 0
Denmark 0, France 0
Round of 16
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68), Argentina 3 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Quarter-Finals
Uruguay 0, France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)

Belgium
Group Stage
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75), Panama 0
Belgium 5 (E Hazard 6 pen, 51, Lukaku 16, 45+3, Batshuayi 90), Tunisia 2 (Bronn 18, Khazri 90+3)
England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Round of 16
Belgium 3 (Vertonghen 69, Fellaini 74, Chadli 90+4), Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48, Inui 52)
Quarter-Finals
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76), Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)

Game Plan

France have built into the tournament well, improving with every game and looking very well-drilled in a comfortable 2-0 win over Uruguay. Belgium are sure to present a sterner test, and it will be interesting to see how Didier Deschamps approaches the game. Under their former captain, France have displayed a tendency to sit back and hit their opposition on the break, a strategy which gives Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé the space to catch defenders out with their speed, smarts and skill. Holding it all together is main striker Olivier Giroud, who is yet to score a goal at this tournament but allows others to thrive by holding the ball up in attack and allowing his teammates to drift into dangerous positions. France’s key strength lies in midfield, where N’Golo Kanté provides a tireless screen for the defence and Paul Pogba combines an imposing physique with incredible skills. They are starting to work together well, and they will be hard to beat.

With Romelu Lukaku leading the line, and receiving brilliant service from Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, it’s not surprising that Belgium like to attack. In their first few matches they played a three-man defence and largely controlled the game, relying on their talent to break their opponents down. Then they came up against Brazil, after an unconvincing come-from-behind win over Japan. They weren’t expected to go through, but a switch to a more conventional four man defence paid dividends and the impact of de Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku on the break was enough to put two goals past Brazil. A suspension to Thomas Meunier, the only genuine right-back in the squad, means that changes will have to be made, and it will be interesting to see if Roberto Martínez reverts to his earlier approach against a French team that could be more potent than the Brazilians. The bare bones of the side are likely to remain the same, but the identity of Meunier’s replacement will dictate Martínez’s approach to the match.

Key Questions

1. Who will replace Thomas Meunier?
Belgium don’t have another proper right-back in their squad, so whoever comes in for the in-form Meunier will be a makeshift solution. Nacer Chadli’s versatility means he can deputise, but that will create a hole in the midfield trio (which Chadli was a part of). Either way, Chadli is not a natural right-back, and playing him in an unfamiliar position could cause big problems. Thomas Vermaelen could come into the side, and his selection would likely mean a reversion to a back three (this time with centre-back Jan Vertonghen in a more attacking and not necessarily natural role). The suspension of the only player in Belgium’s side without a natural replacement is sure to cause plenty of headaches for Martínez, and Meunier’s form means his absence will have ramifications.
2. Will either side take the game on?
Pre-tournament, the answer to this question would be a definite yes. France tend to invite their opponents to come at them, and Belgium’s strategy was defined by their attacking prowess and ability to exert pressure on their opponents. Then Belgium completely flipped their strategy to beat the Brazilians, and it worked wonders. As a result, Martínez will be very tempted to take a similar approach against France, based on a solid defence, a more powerful midfield (de Bruyne was moved forward against Brazil, allowing the more defensive-minded Marouane Fellaini to take his place) and a potent counter-attacking threat. If France decide to sit back as well, this game could become a defensive battle despite the attacking talent on display. It will be interesting to see which team looks to take control of possession and territory, or if neither is prepared to open themselves up to the other’s counter-attack.
3. Can France keep the Belgians out?
They may have beaten South American powerhouses Argentina and Uruguay on the way here, but France’s defence hasn’t yet come up against a top-quality attack. Argentina were off colour all tournament, and their three goals against the French belied their inability to really trouble Hugo Lloris’ goalHiHu, with said goals coming from a brilliant strike, a fortuitous deflection and an injury time header. Uruguay were missing Edinson Cavani, and without their star striker their attacking play fell apart. In Belgium, France will face an in-form attack with plenty of goals in them, and their largely untroubled defence will be in for a tough examination. If they can’t hold up, their hopes of lifting the World Cup will almost certainly fall by the wayside.

Key Players

N’Golo Kanté’s job description isn’t particularly spectacular: he runs around in midfield, attempts to win the ball, and passes it to an open player, then repeats the cycle for 90 minutes. It may sound simple, but it’s this hard work in midfield that holds the French together. Kanté can run all day while performing his key role, and his anticipation means that he keeps appearing wherever the ball is. His ability to continually pick off passes means that most of France’s opponents struggle to get past him, with their most dangerous attacks cut off before they can even reach the final third, and he also allows Pogba to thrive. France will be relying on him to perform at his best against Belgium, and such is his consistency that he probably will.

Kevin de Bruyne’s start to the tournament was underwhelming. Placed in the centre of midfield to accommodate the undeniable quality of Hazard, Lukaku and Dries Mertens, he was unable to have his usual impact on games and he struggled to show his unique attacking gifts. Then he got a chance in a more advanced role against Brazil, and he was brilliant. He brings other players into the action, and he caused massive issues for Brazil’s previously solid defence when he found space. He can play incredible passes, and his combination with Hazard will be a major concern for Deschamps.

Teams

Blaise Matuidi has returned from suspension, and he is likely to come back into the side with Corentin Tolisso making way. Otherwise, the French aren’t likely to make any changes to the team that beat Uruguay, sticking with the line-up that has served them so well throughout the tournament.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.

Meunier won’t play, and his enforced absence is likely to be Belgium’s only change. The main options to replace him are Youri Tielemans, who can play in the middle, or Vermaelen, whose inclusion may herald a return to a back three. Centre-back Toby Alderweireld could also move to right-back, but such a move would leave Belgium’s two defensive mainstays, Alderweireld and Vertonghen, playing out of position. The 4-3-3 was so effective against Brazil that Martínez may keep it going despite Meunier’s absence.
Possible Team (4-3-3): Courtois – Chadli, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, Tielemans; Lukaku, de Bruyne, E Hazard.

Prediction

This game is very hard to call, but the pace and dynamism of both attacks means that the team who scores first is likely to come away with the win, and could easily win by a big margin. Both teams have plenty of goals in them, and a free-flowing classic is a definite possibility. The French look like the favourites thanks to slightly more consistent performances and the massive loss of Meunier, but Belgium’s quality should not be underestimated and they will come ready to fight. This one could be a classic. France 3-1.

Belgium’s golden generation come through to knock Brazil out

This was Belgium’s last chance. With their golden generation hitting their peak, a World Cup quarter-finals appearance wasn’t going to be good enough for a talented group of stars. To fulfil their immense potential as a team, they simply needed to win. Unfortunately, they were up against Brazil. A draw in their last group stage game would have taken them on a softer path, one which didn’t include the Brazilians (or the French, the team that would play the winner of the highly-anticipated clash). Instead, they won the last group stage match, and here they were. It’s hard to know how many people gave them a chance against Brazil. Belgium were good, but Brazil…were Brazil. They win things, and this team looked capable of winning things. Then Belgium delivered an inspired 90 minute performance which ended Brazil’s tournament and, once again, threw the race for the 2018 World Cup wide open.

The game started very openly. There was chaos in the Belgian penalty area when Neymar’s corner was flicked on by Miranda for Thiago Silva, who hit the post from very close range. Belgium survived and counter-attacked, with Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard combining dangerously against the stretched Brazilian defence. Paulinho had a pair of chances minutes later, firstly running onto the ball as it bounced around in Belgium’s box and then miscuing another flicked on Brazilian corner. Less than 10 minutes had been played, and every single second had been played at breakneck pace. Someone was going to score. It was inevitable.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was Belgium who took the lead. De Bruyne was in sparkling touch, and his incisive ball found Marouane Fellaini on the edge of the box. His shot was deflected out for a corner, which was swung in to the near post. Brazil didn’t defend Hazard’s corner particularly well, and Vincent Kompany was able to get his head on the ball to flick it on for a teammate. It never reached one of his teammates. Instead, it bounced off Fernandinho’s arm as the Brazilian midfielder attempted to block it, and it rebounded into the back of the net. Brazil were behind.

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Kevin de Bruyne scores Belgium’s second goal from just outside the box. De Bruyne was back to his best, and his first half performance gave Belgium an ultimately unassailable lead.

Now in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position, Brazil kept pushing. They drove the Belgian defence back, but Gabriel Jesus couldn’t quite force the ball in from inside the six-yard box. Belgium’s desperate defence cleared – just. Philippe Coutinho had a chance to unleash his lethal right foot when he found space outside the box, but he drilled his shot straight at Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Meanwhile, Belgium continued to pose an attacking threat of their own. Hazard somehow worked his way out of a congested area to burst into space, and Thomas Meunier’s subsequent cross nearly connected with Lukaku in the centre. De Bruyne did connect with Lukaku in the box when he found space on the break, but the big striker wasn’t quite able to get his shot off. Brazil kept pushing, and Marcelo forced Courtois into a save. Then Belgium went forward, Hazard and de Bruyne combined, and Brazil once again scrambled to clear. It was fast, end-to-end action, and both sides looked capable of breaking each other down at any given moment.

One team looked certain to score before the half was up. It was Belgium, not Brazil. Ever since they took the lead, they had threatened to turn one of their counter-attacks into a potent opportunity. When a cleared Brazilian corner found Lukaku, their break delivered. Lukaku simultaneously held off those behind him and took on those in front as he made a barnstorming run to the middle of the field, and he managed to squirt out a pass to the influential de Bruyne just before his momentum finally dissipated. The unmanned de Bruyne took a shot and didn’t miss, leaving Alisson with no chance as he drilled his unstoppable strike into the bottom corner. It was bad enough being behind. Now it was panic stations.

Naturally, Brazil kept pushing harder. Courtois was forced into a pair of tough saves in a matter of seconds, first keeping Marcelo’s deflected cross out with his outstretched hand and then flinging himself to his left to punch Coutinho’s well-placed shot away. Then, in keeping with the rhythm of the game, Belgium countered, and Hazard, Lukaku and de Bruyne threatened again. Shortly afterwards, Alisson tipped de Bruyne’s free-kick over the bar, and was tested again from the resultant corner when Kompany’s back-heeled flick was on target. Neymar hadn’t been too much of a factor, and the Brazilian star was thwarted thrice as the half came to a close. Firstly, he was set upon by Belgium’s afroed central midfield duo of Fellaini and Axel Witsel, and then he was stopped by club teammate Meunier. At the end of the half, he slipped in behind – and he was stopped by the offside flag.

The second half picked up where the first had left off. Kompany dispossessed Neymar and kick-started a counter-attack which saw de Bruyne play Lukaku through. Miranda, Brazil’s captain of the week, managed to stop him. Marcelo played in a few dangerous crosses, but they couldn’t find a target in the middle. Neymar went down in the box and appealed for a penalty, which wasn’t awarded. Paulinho nearly broke through minutes later, but Courtois saved his shot and Brazil couldn’t get onto his follow-up ball across goal. Another penalty appeal came when Kompany brought Gabriel Jesus down. The video assistant referee deliberated for what seemed like an age before deciding no error had been made. Play on. Then, after a protracted period of desperate defending, Belgium broke, and very nearly scored. De Bruyne (again) teed up Hazard (again), and the Belgian captain’s shot fizzed across the face of goal.

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Belgium’s players celebrate after the historic victory. They were pushed right to the end, but they held on well to progress to the semi-finals.

It soon seemed like Brazil’s attacks were beginning to falter. They still had chances, like when Courtois turned a cross into Paulinho’s leg, but Brazil weren’t coming quite as hard or as dangerously. Then Renato Augusto scored. He hadn’t been on the pitch for a long time, coming on as Tite’s last throw of the dice. Then things opened up for him with Coutinho’s perfect chip into the box, and he headed it into the bottom corner where Courtois couldn’t reach it. Brazil had hope, and they had Belgium on the back foot.

For the last 15 minutes, Brazil were a reinvigorated team. Neymar teed up Roberto Firmino in the centre, but the ball was blasted over the bar. Coutinho found Augusto on the edge of the box, and Augusto’s shot just missed. Neymar found Coutinho, for what should have been a simple chance for the star midfielder. He couldn’t have hit a worse shot if he tried, with the ball flying sideways instead of at the target. In the dying moments, Neymar had a shot after combining well with Douglas Costa. It looked perfect. It was dipping, bending and arcing dangerously towards the top corner. It was set to loop perfectly under the bar. It was set to become Neymar’s heroic moment. Then a black glove appeared and tapped the ball out for a corner. Courtois was too good for it.

As the final whistle sounded, it confirmed a win that had looked likely for some time. That didn’t mute the Belgian celebrations, however. De Bruyne was masterful, Hazard was dangerous, Courtois nearly unbeatable and the defence rock-solid. The contrast with Brazil was striking. Neymar occasionally threatened, but was nowhere near his best. Philippe Coutinho was similarly off his game. Fernandinho, in the side for regular defensive midfielder Casemiro, had a catastrophic 90 minutes, and right-back Fagner was tormented by Hazard. Brazil weren’t good enough, and Belgium most certainly were. In the end, the golden generation took their last chance. After the biggest win in their footballing history, they are a huge chance of lifting the World Cup.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76)
Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho (Renato Augusto 73), Fernandinho; Willian (Roberto Firmino 46), Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa 58).
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 83); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Tielemans 87), E Hazard.

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Thibaut Courtois dives full length to stop Philippe Coutinho’s long range effort. The save was one of many remarkable stops made by Courtois in his brilliant performance.

Top 5
1. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
It took an immense effort, a perfect cross and an even more perfect header to eventually beat Courtois, and even Renato Augusto’s perfectly-placed effort wasn’t too far away from the Belgian goalkeeper’s desperate clutches. When Belgium needed him to stand up, he delivered, and he was the match-winner with his heroic goalkeeping.
2. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Before this game, de Bruyne hadn’t been at his best. He was playing in a deeper midfield role, and he wasn’t getting on the ball in dangerous areas. Then he was moved into a more advanced position. From the start, de Bruyne was pulling the strings, floating into space and seemingly making something happen with every touch. His impact waned after half time, but his first half was enough.
3. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
When Hazard and de Bruyne combined, Brazil were put under immense pressure. Hazard was free to roam, and he made Fagner look completely out of his depth with some exceptional displays of skill. His balance, poise and ability caught the Brazilians out, and his counter-attacking runs were invaluable in the dying minutes for the time they chewed up.
4. Douglas Costa (Brazil)
Costa came off the bench, and he looked more likely to have an impact than many of his teammates. He made incisive runs cutting in from the right wing, he played some dangerous crosses and he connected well with the rest of the Brazilian attack. It wasn’t his best tournament, but a lively performance was a good way to finish it.
5. Vincent Kompany (Belgium)
Kompany wasn’t able to start in the group stage due to injury, but Belgium took the risk of picking their former captain despite his troubles. In their biggest ever win, he justified that selection. His defensive work was outstanding, and he was a huge factor in Belgium’s ability to keep the Brazilians out. To cap it off, it was his header that was deflected in for the crucial opening goal.

Belgium come back from the dead to leave Japan heartbroken

Keisuke Honda prepared to take the corner kick. With around 30 seconds remaining in Japan’s round of 16 clash with Belgium, the match was finely poised. One goal either way was sure to win it, with the scores level at 2-2 in the 94th minute. Honda, brought on to provide an impact from the bench, had won the corner, forcing Thibaut Courtois to dive full length to bat away his very long-range free-kick. Now, he put the ball into the centre, knowing that a goal would seal a famous Japanese victory.

Such a victory had seemed impossible when the sides began the match and inevitable shortly after half-time, when the Japanese went 2-0 up. Japan had only reached this stage on fair play points, while Belgium had looked like the real deal as their dynamic attack blew sides away in the group stage. Belgium were expected to cruise through, and their first half did little to suggest that Japan would give them any trouble. They exerted an almost effortless dominance over the Japanese, continuing to batter them until they seemed sure to crack.

Honda’s cross was too close to Courtois to give Japan a realistic chance of scoring. With his usual ease, Courtois seemed to glide off his line to take the ball, and he seemed to navigate the traffic of the penalty area with minimal fuss as he looked to offload possession to a teammate. Knowing the urgency of the situation, and the potential for a swift counter-attack, Courtois was moving quite quickly. From the expression on his face, you’d think he was going through a training drill.

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Takashi Inui celebrates after putting Japan 2-0 up early in the second half. Inui’s goal, a brilliantly taken shot from distance, seemed to give Japan the head-start they needed to claim a famous victory.

Courtois’ demeanour wasn’t quite so serene when Takashi Inui beat him just after half time. Belgium had already gone behind a few minutes earlier thanks to a counter-attacking goal from Genki Haraguchi, and they were determinedly trying to erase the deficit. In this climate, Japan found themselves going forward once more, only to have their attack rebuffed by Vincent Kompany’s solid defensive header. And then rebooted again, as Shinji Kagawa picked up the ball on the edge of the box. He controlled it and passed it to Inui, who lashed it into the back of the net from range. Earlier in the tournament, Inui had scored an excellent goal against Senegal. It was neither as good nor as important as this one. Belgium were behind, and Courtois’ stunned expression was a perfect representation of how Belgium were feeling. It wasn’t meant to be this way.

Courtois rolled the ball out from the edge of the area, spotting a running Kevin de Bruyne in the middle of Belgium’s half. There were no Japanese players in sight as Belgium’s star playmaker ran through the middle of the field, approaching the halfway line with the same calm urgency that Courtois had shown seconds earlier. He passed halfway unchallenged, and continued to stroll unchallenged until he reached the edge of the centre circle.

De Bruyne’s fortunes had loosely mirrored those of his side. Early on in the piece, he had been decent but not quite at his best, making a few nice passes but never coming up with the impromptu moments of brilliance which so often define his play. Then, after the second goal, he fell apart with the rest of his team. Belgium’s star-studded attack seemed shell-shocked, and de Bruyne wasn’t quite working at his best alongside Belgian captain Eden Hazard. Belgium’s problems were not just isolated to two misfiring stars. Romelu Lukaku, who had looked so dynamic earlier in the match, was somehow missing chances he would normally convert in his sleep. They were making mistakes in possession, and attacks were breaking down without any need for Japanese intervention. Left wing-back Yannick Carrasco was woeful, seemingly turning the ball over every time he got it. Belgium’s so-called golden generation was unravelling against the disciplined Japanese, and there seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.

De Bruyne had plenty of options as he entered Belgium’s attacking half. He chose Thomas Meunier, streaming down the right wing. Meunier received the ball in the final third, and things were starting to get a little nervous for the Japanese. Belgium’s counter-attack looked fluent, and Japan’s defence was stretched to dangerous levels as the Belgian wing-back ran onto the ball. Meunier had options inside the box, and he kept running forward with those options at the front of his mind. Japan just didn’t have the numbers to put any pressure on Meunier, and he prepared to cross the ball into the box at his own leisure.

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Genki Haraguchi (front) scores the opening goal of the match past Jan Vertonghen (centre) and Thibaut Courtois. The goal came from a one-man counter-attack, and a poor piece of defending from Vertonghen.

Meunier had been partially responsible for Japan’s first goal, which really set the cat among the pigeons. He attempted to combine with Dries Mertens on the right wing, as he had done to good effect plenty of times in the first half. When Mertens lost the ball attempting to pass it in his direction, it didn’t seem too costly. Japan hadn’t made them pay in the first half. The ball that Gaku Shibasaki played in his attempt to break the defence open didn’t seem likely to make Belgium pay either. Genki Haraguchi was running through, but Jan Vertonghen was in the way. Somehow, he failed to make the challenge required to nip the slightly concerning but flawed counter-attack in the bud. His touch wasn’t enough to prevent the ball getting through, and Haraguchi managed to slip his shot past Courtois, with Vertonghen desperately chasing him to atone for his error.

Vertonghen got that chance with about 20 minutes of normal time remaining, and he seized the opportunity to reduce the deficit and shake Belgium out of their shock-induced stupor. The opening was a small one, and it came from a poorly defended corner. The ball bounced around in the box, and eventually it was hacked high in the air. It didn’t leave the area, instead landing right on top of Vertonghen in a rather unlikely goal-scoring position. On a tight angle, the centre-back’s best chance seemed to be a header into the middle, where others could attempt to capitalise. Instead, he chanced his arm. The truly remarkable looped into the back of the net from an acute angle, nestling itself into the bottom corner despite Eiji Kawashima’s best efforts and giving Belgium hope of salvaging something from the match.

Meunier played his cross into the centre, looking for Lukaku. The big forward had run into the box as Belgium looked to break, and he found himself face to face with a defender as the ball reached him. He could try to beat the man in front of him and let off a shot, or trap the ball, hold it with his back to goal and feed an onrushing player. Or he could just let it through, where he knew he had a teammate bearing down on goal. Lukaku decided to let it through.

Lukaku had been heavily involved in Belgium’s best chance to go ahead after the equaliser. With normal time winding down, Meunier picked out Nacer Chadli, who forced Kawashima into an acrobatic save and collected the ball as it ricocheted back into play. He lofted another pass into the centre, where Lukaku was waiting. While Belgium were falling apart, Lukaku had been on the end of two such crosses. One ended up wide of the target from point-blank range and the other was well blocked. Now, his header was on target but athletically tipped over the bar by Kawashima. Japan were holding on, and continuing to play out of their skins as they sought to find some kind of result. Akira Nishino’s men weren’t settling for extra time, and they were continuing to throw players forward in an attempt to win the game. In the end, it probably cost them.

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Nacer Chadli (in red) scores the winning goal in the 94th minute. Chadli’s finish sealed Belgium’s remarkable comeback from 2-0 down, the first such comeback in a knockout game since 1970.

Lukaku let the ball pass through his legs, allowing Chadli to run onto it in space. Japan’s defence had been stretched to the point where they offered no resistance as Chadli collected the ball. There was nobody there to stop him. The second half substitute had a golden opportunity, and he slammed it emphatically past Kawashima’s futile attempts to deny him.  A Japanese defender slid in, but he came in too late to make an impact. Miraculously, Belgium had won. Miraculously, Nacer Chadli had come up with the goal to send them to the quarter-finals, with just eight seconds of injury time remaining. Japan had surely lost. Belgium had surely won.

Chadli played a big part in Belgium’s crucial second goal. He had looked good after replacing Carrasco, and when he received the ball from a Japanese corner with space to run into he just took off. Inui attempted to impede him and stop him from breaking through. Chadli shook him off. Eventually, the counter-attack created a corner, as de Bruyne’s shot was blocked over the bar. Hazard was taking it. The corner was cleared away, but de Bruyne still managed to find himself the ball with time and space. He was too far out to score, but he knew exactly where Hazard was and he passed it to his captain in space on the left wing. After a bit of dribbling, Hazard crossed. It was another substitute, Marouane Fellaini, who met the ball with his head and couldn’t miss from close range. The decision to replace Mertens with Fellaini had seemed an intriguing one at the time. The afroed midfielder more than justified his introduction with that one moment.

Chadli’s goal came with basically the last kick of the game, and sealed one of the most remarkable comeback wins in World Cup history. When the final whistle blew, Belgium’s reaction was one of overwhelming relief, while Japan’s was one of complete despair. The Japanese had given their all, and found themselves in a position where they looked almost certain to progress. They had brought one of the competition’s favourites to their knees, yet they still found themselves beaten. As for Belgium, it’s hard to know what to think. There were plenty of good moments, and their stunning comeback shows that they have good spirit and excellent resolve, but they’ll have to ask themselves what went wrong in the first place. In the end, the enthralling, rollicking battle sent Belgium through, and that’s really all they can ask for.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Belgium 3 (Vertonghen 69, Fellaini 74, Chadli 90+4)
Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48, Inui 52)
Referee: Malang Diedhiou (Sen)
Belgium (3-4-2-1): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, de Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco (Chadli 65); Mertens (Fellaini 65), E Hazard; Lukaku.
Japan (4-2-3-1): Kawashima – H Sakai, Yoshida, Shōji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki (Yamaguchi 81); Haraguchi (Honda 81), Kagawa, Inui; Ōsako.

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Marouane Fellaini celebrates after scoring Belgium’s second goal from the bench. Fellaini’s size had a big impact on the latter part of the game, as he collected a goal and repeatedly threatened the Japanese defence.

Top 5
1. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier dropped off slightly during Belgium’s poor period after the second goal, but he was otherwise consistent and very dangerous. His delivery from the right wing was excellent, and he used his size to good effect when tracking back to assist the defence.
2. Nacer Chadli (Belgium)
Chadli came on for Carrasco and immediately reinvigorated the Belgians with his confident ball use and his dynamic run down the left. He contributed to two of Belgium’s three goals, and scored the winner in the dying moments. With Carrasco looking horribly out of form, Chadli is a very good chance to start in the quarter-finals.
3. Takashi Inui (Japan)
Inui scored an excellent goal to give Japan an almost unassailable lead, and his work slipping behind the Belgian defence on the break caused plenty of problems. He put in some dangerous crosses and made some very clever runs, and he was involved in basically all of Japan’s best attacks.
4. Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)
Nagatomo was excellent, doing his defensive duties as the left-back and pushing forward into dangerous positions. He put in some very dangerous crosses, and his combination with Inui was as sharp as ever. He showed his experience with an excellent individual performance.
5. Marouane Fellaini (Belgium)
The decision to bring Fellaini, a central midfielder, on for Mertens, a right winger, seemed an odd one. Mertens had been dangerous on occasions, and Fellaini has never quite been the finished product. Then, slotting in on the right wing, Fellaini delivered a brilliant performance on the right. He managed to score the equaliser with an excellent header, and showed he can be a handy impact player.

Januzaj’s stunning strike stands out as Belgium beat England

Adnan Januzaj received the ball on the edge of the penalty area. The talented Belgian winger was receiving his first start of the World Cup, and, presumably looking to impress, he skipped into the box, leaving Danny Rose scrambling to keep up as he moved from side to side. Januzaj rolled the ball to the left and right with excellent touch, before eventually deciding it was time to take a shot. He did, nonchalantly stroking the ball past Jordan Pickford’s desperate dive and into the top corner. In any other game, Januzaj’s stunning goal would have been cause for wonderment and rapturous celebration. In this game, it just cued bewilderment.

The match was only a mostly dead rubber, but actual dead rubbers – and indeed friendlies – generally take place with more energy. Both England and Belgium had sealed their place in the knockout stages, but England went into the match on top of the group, ahead of their opponents on fair play points (Belgium had negative three, England negative two). It should have been an enthralling contest, but the only incentive either team could get from topping the group was a place in the harder side of the tournament. As a result, Belgium went into the game having made nine changes, while England had made eight. Neither side had anything to gain from winning, and the result was a spectacle that left much to be desired.

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Gary Cahill (left) makes a key goal line clearance early on. The chance was one of few either side had during the match.

It was clear from the off that both teams knew exactly what the situation was regarding qualification. There were moments where Belgium’s reserves looked like scoring, most notably when Gary Cahill was forced into a goal line clearance, but generally everyone just passed the ball around. Occasionally the passing was punctuated by moments of excitement, like when Trent Alexander-Arnold’s harmless cross was so far wrong that it nearly became a half-decent shot (it still missed the target), but such moments were rare and it didn’t take long for the game to revert back to a funereal pace. Referee Damir Skomina mercifully ended the lacklustre first half without adding any time on, and the image of English wing-back Danny Rose sharing a joke with the Belgian players during the break didn’t suggest that the second half would be any more entertaining. Then, just to add to the weird contest that was unfolding, there was the small issue of the yellow cards.

With neither team really interested in winning, the match seemed destined to end in a draw, bringing fair play points into the equation. With England only leading in the race for the non-coveted top spot in the group by virtue of their superior disciplinary record, there was the possibility that a couple of bad English fouls could push Belgium into first place, something they didn’t seem to want. Obviously, Belgium foresaw this tactic, and saw fit to forestall it by picking up a few bookings of their own. Mousa Dembélé started it, bringing down Tottenham Hotspur teammate Rose a little more vigorously than he needed to. Rose was the victim again shortly after, with Leander Dendoncker brutally hacking him down just outside the box and giving England an unassailable lead in the fair play points stakes. It was complicated, very ridiculous and, above all, just bizarre.

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Adnan Januzaj celebrates after opening the scoring with a brilliant goal. Januzaj’s goal proved the difference between the teams, and it was a very rare moment of class in an otherwise uninteresting game.

Then, just after half time, Januzaj produced his moment of stunning quality. Under the circumstances, the goal felt out of place. How could it tally with a game where neither team was trying, both seemed to be secretly hoping for a defeat, no first-choice players were on the pitch and the most enthralling subplot was based around yellow cards? It almost felt like Januzaj’s goal could have been an accident, as if he unfurled a low-percentage shot and managed to absolutely nail the strike. It was just so out of keeping with everything that had happened throughout the game, and the lifelessness of the affair. After the goal, Michy Batshuayi grabbed the ball and punted it back into the net in celebration. He slammed it into the post, and it rebounded straight back into his head. At least that part was more in keeping with the rest of the game.

England didn’t really seem bothered by their going behind in the match, and they seemed quite content to hold the status quo. They pushed a little harder, but they never took it to the Belgians and didn’t really looked like getting an equaliser. In the final moments, Belgium seemed to adopt the attitude that since England weren’t actually going to beat them, if they were going to hurt their World Cup chances by winning the game then they may as well win it properly. The result was some good chances, with Dries Mertens forcing a save from Pickford and Batshuayi slipping through a couple of defenders and playing a dangerous ball into the middle which formed a dangerous scrum in the six-yard box, but no goals. In the end, with neither team really needing – or even wanting – to win, the result was never likely to be too fascinating. In the end, it was no surprise that it was just a bit dull.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
England 0
Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Jones, Stones (Maguire 46), Cahill; Alexander-Arnold (Welbeck 79), Loftus-Cheek, Dier, Delph, Rose; Vardy, Rashford.
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Dendoncker, Boyata, Vermaelen (Kompany 74); Chadli, Dembélé, Fellaini, T Hazard; Januzaj (Mertens 86), Batshuayi, Tielemans.

Top 5
1. Adnan Januzaj (Belgium)
Januzaj provided the only real entertainment of the match with his stunning strike into the top corner, and gave Belgium a spark on the right wing which suggests he could be a handful. As Belgium enter the knockouts he could be a very handy player to keep in reserve.
2. Danny Rose (England)
Rose was in pretty solid form, making some good forward runs and causing the occasional problem for the Belgian defence. He showed good pace getting forward, and showed that he has the quality to deputise on the left whenever he’s needed.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois was one of few first-choice players on the field, and his excellent goalkeeping allowed Belgium to come away with the win. He made a few excellent saves, always looked confident coming off his line and provided the security Belgium will rely on later in this tournament.
4. Marcus Rashford (England)
Rashford looked like the only English player who was really capable of breaching the Belgian defence, and he came very close on a few occasions with his pace and skill. He kept his energy up throughout the game, and came closer to scoring than any of his teammates.
5. Trent Alexander-Arnold (England)
Alexander-Arnold looked completely at home in just his second international match (even if it was against a less than full-strength Belgian side), and suggested that he can do a decent job off the bench if required. His set piece delivery was good, and he made some nice runs down the right.

Tunisia blown away by red-hot Belgium

Any team playing Belgium later in this World Cup should be afraid. They have scored eight goals in their first two games, and their dominant 5-2 rout of Tunisia sent a massive warning to their competition. Up front, Romelu Lukaku used his pace, power and extraordinary touch to score his second brace in two games. Next to him, Eden Hazard was at his best, slipping past Tunisian defenders, wreaking havoc with his runs in behind and adding two goals of his own. Michy Batshuayi, coming on as Lukaku’s deputy, could have easily scored a hat-trick with the brilliant chances he had. Tunisia fought hard, and created some nice attacking moves of their own, but they were no match for a Belgian team who could seemingly unlock their opponents’ defence at will. Perhaps the scariest part about Belgium’s performance is the fact that there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

There were warning signs early. A long ball into Belgium’s attacking third was too heavy, and certain to safely travel to Farouk Ben Mustapha. Then Lukaku got involved, easily outrunning centre-back Yassine Meriah and seriously challenging the Tunisian keeper with a blistering turn of speed. It wasn’t really a chance, but it showed exactly what the big striker can do. A few minutes later, Eden Hazard was the victim of a clumsy challenge from Syam Ben Youssef on the edge of the box. Referee Jair Marrufo pointed to the spot, the video assistant referee couldn’t find anything to overturn the decision and Hazard stepped up to calmly convert the penalty. On the sideline, Belgian coach Roberto Martínez didn’t even react.

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Eden Hazard celebrates after scoring the opening goal. There was some doubt as to whether Hazard was fouled inside the area or not, but the referee’s decision was upheld and the penalty stood.

Soon, things got worse for the Eagles of Carthage. Ali Maâloul’s heavy touch was intercepted by Dries Mertens, and his pass to Lukaku sliced through the exposed Tunisian defence. It was still far from an easy finish for the big striker, who received the ball just inside the area, took a touch and hit a shot through Ben Youssef’s legs and past Ben Mustapha’s desperate lunge. It wasn’t a particularly easy finish, but Lukaku made it look like child’s play. More worryingly for the Tunisians, just over 15 minutes had elapsed when Lukaku made it 2-0. It didn’t bode well.

Then, a couple of minutes after the second goal, came the highlight of Tunisia’s match. Wahbi Khazri curled a free-kick into the box, and Belgium’s slightly shaky defence allowed right-back Dylan Bronn the space to get his head to the ball. The header was perfect, unstoppably bouncing past Thibaut Courtois and slipping just inside the post. The goal put Tunisia back in the contest, and there were signs that they were starting to settle into the game. A few incautious errors gave Belgium some opportunities, but Khazri and Ferjani Sassi were also able to present a threat going forward and the Tunisians put some nice moves together. Defenders Bronn and Ben Youssef went down injured, but Tunisia continued to fight and seemed to be hanging in the contest. Then Belgium scored on the stroke of half time.

Seconds before the goal, Lukaku had threatened to score another. Hazard found Kevin de Bruyne in space as Belgium broke quickly, and Tunisia only survived when de Bruyne’s ball for Lukaku was slightly too heavy. The next time a chance came, Tunisia didn’t get off so lightly. Maâloul had been the main culprit for the turnovers which had riddled Tunisia’s play, and when he tried to keep the ball in he offended again. This time Thomas Meunier was the beneficiary, and after playing a one-two with de Bruyne the right wing-back slipped a little pass in behind for Lukaku to run onto. Ben Mustapha was chipped with remarkable ease, and Belgium had their third. It didn’t take much longer to grab the fourth.

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Michy Batshuayi celebrates after scoring a late goal. Batshuayi came on as a second half substitute, and had a number of clear-cut opportunities.

Tunisia started the second half well, producing some good attacking moves. Then their defence was unlocked by one pass. Toby Alderweireld picked the ball up deep in his own half, and with few options available to him he went long. He also hit Hazard behind the defence, onside and straight on the chest. It took the Belgian captain three touches to put it into the back of the net. He controlled the ball with his chest, then flicked it past Ben Mustapha to present himself with a chance in front of an open goal. He couldn’t miss. Belgium began to switch off a little after Hazard’s second, and Tunisia began to put their defence under a bit of pressure. It never quite looked like coming to anything.

Batshuayi came on and proceeded to have a number of brilliant chances to score. He slipped in behind the Tunisian defence and chipped Ben Mustapha, only for Meriah to sweep in and clear it off the line. He had another chance when Ben Mustapha fumbled Yannick Carrasco’s shot, but somehow smashed it into the bar from very close range. When he volleyed de Bruyne’s perfect cross straight at the Tunisian keeper, forcing Ben Mustapha into a reflex save, it looked like the substitute striker would be denied a goal. He wasn’t. In the dying moments, Youri Tielemans put in a beautiful cross, and Batshuayi timed his slide perfectly to send the ball into the bottom corner. It was another difficult opportunity converted with little fuss, and it provided an excellent finishing touch to an excellent win. Tunisia had some late joy when Khazri got on the end of Hamdi Nagguez’s pull-back to the edge of the six-yard box, but it was one of few wins for the day and merely served as a footnote to a one-sided game.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Belgium 5 (E Hazard 6 pen, 51, Lukaku 16, 45+3, Batshuayi 90)
Tunisia 2 (Bronn 18, Khazri 90+3)
Referee: Jair Marrufo (USA)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, de Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco; Mertens (Tielemans 86), Lukaku (Fellaini 59), E Hazard (Batshuayi 68).
Tunisia (4-3-3): Ben Mustapha – Bronn (Nagguez 24), S Ben Youssef (Benalouane 41), Meriah, Maâloul; Khaoui, Skhiri, Sassi (Sliti 59); F Ben Youssef, Khazri, Badri.

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Romelu Lukaku (centre) competes for the ball with Syam Ben Youssef (left). Lukaku managed to score two goals, making him the equal top scorer for the tournament with four from two games.

Top 5
1. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku was substituted reasonably early in the second half, but by then the match was all but over thanks to his influence. He showed incredible pace and found dangerous pockets of space, and his finishing was exceptional. He scored goals with both feet, and made difficult finishes look extraordinarily straightforward.
2. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard kicked off the scoring by winning a penalty and coolly converting it, and he continued to pose a threat until his substitution in the second half. He added another goal, benefitting from an incredible ball but also completing the chance with remarkably good touch, and created plenty of chances with his brilliant skills.
3. Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia)
Khazri’s goal was a deserved reward for his performance, even if it came when his team were four goals behind in second half stoppage time. He created plenty of opportunities for the Eagles of Carthage, and his perfectly delivered free-kick allowed them to score their first goal. He can hold his head high.
4. Michy Batshuayi (Belgium)
A combination of bad luck and poor finishing denied Batshuayi a number of goals, but he kept putting himself in dangerous positions and eventually bagged a late goal. He was able to exploit the space in behind Tunisia’s defence after coming off the bench, and if Martínez wants to rest Lukaku then Batshuayi would be a dangerous replacement.
5. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier performed his wing-back role to perfection, making several key contributions at both ends of the pitch. He was dangerous cutting in from the sideline, and he provided the assist for Lukaku’s second goal with a very neat pass. His defensive work was excellent, and he looks like a solid addition to Belgium’s side.

Belgium score three without breaking a sweat

At least they survived the first half. As Belgium opened their World Cup campaign by cruising to victory against a Panamanian side who were completely outmatched by their star-studded opponents, that was the one thing Los Canaleros could cling to, the one positive souvenir of a tough day. For Belgium, it was business as usual despite a slightly-too-casual opening, with Dries Mertens netting a stunning volley and Romelu Lukaku picking up a brace as they dominated the second half and never seemed to get out of first gear.

Panama had been waiting for this day since October last year, and their first half of World Cup football was a success, even if, predictably, it was Belgium who had the first real chances. Jaime Penedo was called into action early on, saving a hard-hit shot from Yannick Carrasco and needing quick reflexes just seconds later to deny a dangerous attempt from Mertens. Shortly afterwards, Eden Hazard intercepted Román Torres’ slightly shallow backpass before it reached Penedo and drilled a shot into the side netting, and it appeared like Panama were about to be suffocated by the weight of Belgium’s opportunities. They weren’t.

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Eden Hazard (left) runs away from Gabriel Gómez during the match. Hazard’s control with the ball at his feet caused plenty of issues for the Panamanian defence.

Belgium had chances, of course, like when Kevin de Bruyne’s cross was nearly turned into the Panamanian net by Torres and when Hazard ran straight through the defence and forced Penedo into another fine save. But those chances were too often punctuated by lengthy periods of inaction, where Les Diables Rouges controlled the ball but couldn’t find the urgency to break down their determined opponents. They were approaching the game with all the energy of a Sunday stroll in the park, seemingly waiting for something to happen rather than pushing for it. Hazard threatened, but never really did anything meaningful, and de Bruyne wasn’t getting into good enough positions to take advantage of his incredible vision. Up front, Lukaku was completely anonymous. By half time, the scores were still level, and Panama still hadn’t been seriously tested by an underwhelming Belgian team.

Belgium emerged from half time with more purpose, and it took less than two minutes for them to go ahead thanks to Mertens’ wonder goal. Torres could only clear the Belgian winger’s fairly harmless ball into the box as far as Hazard and Fidel Escobar, and after an aerial contest the ball ended up back where it started, falling to Mertens in the box. Casually, he took on the shot first time, looping the volley towards goal on a tight angle and leaving Penedo with no chance as the unstoppable strike floated into the top corner. It was a remarkable finish, and its difficulty was belied by the nonchalance with which Mertens took the quarter-chance.

With the deadlock broken, Belgian deemed that there was no further need for their top effort. Soon the game slipped back into the lull of the first half, with Belgium controlling proceedings but not quite doing enough to seriously threaten the Panamanian goal. Panama had a golden opportunity almost immediately after Mertens’ goal, but Michael Murillo couldn’t finish against Thibaut Courtois. It was telling that the Belgians didn’t seem too concerned by the possibility of Panama scoring, and Jan Vertonghen was only getting worked up over Carrasco’s dereliction of his defensive duties. It was the best opportunity Panama had for the rest of the match. Around 15 minutes later they doubled their advantage.

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Romulu Lukaku celebrates after scoring Belgium’s third goal. Lukaku’s chip over Jaime Penedo was a fitting finish to a dominant Belgian display.

It was the previously quiet Lukaku who was good enough to bag the second after some brilliant build-up play. Hazard started it, once again challenging every defender in sight with one of his pretty but directionless runs, and after engaging three Panamanian defenders he slipped a pass to de Bruyne. What happened next was pure class. Upon receiving the ball, de Bruyne shimmied past Aníbal Godoy, found himself in perfect position and threaded an exquisite cross onto the forehead of the powerful striker with the outstep of his right boot. Like Mertens’ perfect volley, it was a moment of nonchalant brilliance which clearly highlighted the difference between the two sides.

A fast break, a good run from Hazard and an effortless first time chip from Lukaku provided the third goal, but by that point the game was already over. Panama fought up to the final whistle, at times drawing big cheers from their large contingent of supporters when they came close to scoring a historic goal, but they never really stood a chance against Belgium’s second half onslaught. For their part, Belgium only tried as hard as they needed to, and the ease with which they sealed their 3-0 win should sound a warning to any team that will come up against them.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75)
Panama 0
Referee: Janny Sikazwe (Zam)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel (Chadli 90), de Bruyne, Carrasco (Dembélé 74); Mertens (T Hazard 83), Lukaku, E Hazard.
Panama (4-1-4-1): Penedo – Murillo, R Torres, Escobar, Davis; Gómez; Bárcenas (G Torres 63), Cooper, Godoy, J L Rodríguez (Díaz 63); Pérez (Tejada 73).

Top 5
1. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard came into his own in the second half, playing a big hand in both of Belgium’s goals and looking very dangerous with the ball at his feet. He was always attempting to take on the Panamanian defence, and while they managed to stop him most of the time he had a big impact when he did break through.
2. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku came into his own after a quiet first half, bagging two second half goals and working his way into good positions. He showed an excellent turn of speed in scoring the final goal of the match, and with his freakish athleticism and excellent supporting players it’s scary what he could do if he puts together a full 90-minute effort.
3. Jaime Penedo (Panama)
Penedo had plenty of work to do, especially in the first half, and he made some truly brilliant saves to deny Belgium’s brilliant attackers. He was one of the few Panamanians who didn’t seem slightly out of place against their world-class opposition, and can hold his head high after a strong performance.
4. Dries Mertens (Belgium)
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from how easily he seemed to take the chance, but Mertens’ volley to open the scoring could be an early contender for goal of the tournament. Otherwise, he made plenty of dangerous attacking runs and created plenty of problems for Panama’s defence in a solid effort.
5. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne was another of Belgium’s stars who began the game slowly but finished with an excellent second half display. He worked into more advanced positions as the game progressed, and when he got the ball in and around the penalty area he was capable of providing special balls like the assist for Lukaku’s first goal.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group G

Group G

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Belgium (3), Panama (55), Tunisia (21), England (12)
Fixtures:
Belgium vs Panama, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
Tunisia vs England, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Belgium vs Tunisia, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
England vs Panama, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
England vs Belgium, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Panama vs Tunisia, Mordovia Arena, Saransk

Belgium

Head Coach: Roberto Martínez
Captain: Eden Hazard
Previous Appearances: 12 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2014)
Best Finish: Fourth Place (1986)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group H
Qualification Top Scorer: Romelu Lukaku (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), 12. Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), 13. Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg).
Defenders: 2. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), 3. Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), 4. Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), 5. Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), 20. Dedryck Boyata (Celtic).
Midfielders: 6. Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), 7. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), 8. Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), 11. Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), 16. Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 17. Youri Tielemans (Monaco), 19. Mousa Dembélé (Tottenham Hotspur), 22. Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), 23. Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht).
Forwards: 9. Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), 10. Eden Hazard (Chelsea), 14. Dries Mertens (Napoli), 18. Anton Januzaj (Real Sociedad), 21. Michy Batshuayi (Borussia Dortmund).

Belgium coasted through a simple qualifying group effortlessly, barely breaking a sweat as they progressed with nine wins and a draw. Belgium’s current side, made up of their “golden generation”, is the strongest they’ve ever fielded, with plenty of quality players in every position. Thibaut Courtois is a star goalkeeper, and Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen form a very solid defence. Midfield enforcers Axel Witsel, Mousa Dembélé, Marouane Fellaini and Leander Dendoncker will support a devastating attack that scored 43 goals in qualifying. Romelu Lukaku leads the line, and the powerful striker will receive service from three of Europe’s best in Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. De Bruyne is arguably the best playmaker in world football, and in conjunction with the silky skills of Hazard and Mertens he could wreak havoc at the World Cup. With Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco providing some quality width and plenty of depth in the squad, Belgium could be a legitimate contender. If they put it all together, they will be formidable.

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Romelu Lukaku (centre) fights for the ball during a qualifier against Greece. Lukaku was Belgium’s top-scorer in qualifying, and he will shoulder most of the scoring burden in Russia.

Despite their undisputed quality, the Belgians haven’t quite put it together in their most recent major tournaments, with quarter-final exits at the World Cup and the Euros a pair of disappointing results for such a talented team. New coach Roberto Martínez brings plenty of tactical nous, but questions remain about whether the players can stand up when required. Defence could be a problem for Belgium, especially with an injury to Kompany which jeopardises the former captain’s participation. The lack of a genuine left-back is also a concern, and although Martínez’s switch to a three-man defence counters that it also means Carrasco, a natural attacker, will have to play a fairly big defensive role. The non-selection of high-octane, high-impact midfielder Radja Nainggolan caused plenty of outrage in Belgium, even if only 23 people showed up to protest it (out of 9000 expected to attend). The distractions caused by this, and the impact of the loss of Nainggolan, could prove costly.

Star Player: Kevin de Bruyne

De Bruyne has always been a classy playmaker, but his work with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City has taken his game to another level. Now sitting deeper in midfield, his incredible vision and his ability to pick out an incisive pass led to a tally of 16 Premier League assists, with many more chances created. If he can work well with Hazard, Mertens and Lukaku it will cause massive headaches for opposing defences.

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Kevin de Bruyne runs with the ball during Belgium’s Euro 2016 quarter-final against Wales. De Bruyne is a classy playmaker, and he has become one of the world’s best midfielders.

Key Player: Jan Vertonghen

In the last few years, Vertonghen and Alderweireld have formed a brilliant defensive partnership with Tottenham Hotspur, and the Belgians will be hoping this carries on in Russia. Vertonghen is versatile and a solid defender, and with Alderweireld missing a large chunk of the season with injuries he stepped up in a big way to lead the Spurs defence. Belgium will be looking for similar defensive steel on the vulnerable left side of defence.

One to watch: Leander Dendoncker

Dendoncker is one of the newest members of the Belgian squad, and the talented youngster could come in handy at the World Cup. He can play in both midfield and defence, and his height and strength will serve him well wherever he is required to slot in. His form with Anderlecht has been excellent, and he could make an impact if given a chance.

Verdict

The Belgians are talented and have plenty of depth, and if they reach their potential they could be good enough to win it all. They won’t face too much early competition, and they will be a formidable opponent.
Likely Team (3-4-2-1): Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel, de Bruyne, Carrasco; Hazard, Mertens; Lukaku.

Panama

Head Coach: Hernán Dário Gómez
Captain: Felipe Baloy
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: CONCACAF, 3rd
Qualification Top Scorer: Gabriel Torres (3)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucureşti), 12. José Calderón (Chorrillo), 22. Álex Rodríguez (San Francisco).
Defenders: 2. Michael Amir Murillo (New York Red Bulls), 3. Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), 4. Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), 5. Román Torres (Seattle Sounders), 13. Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), 15. Erick Davis (Dunajská Streda), 17. Luis Ovalle (Olimpia), 23. Felipe Baloy (Municipal).
Midfielders: 6. Gabriel Gómez (Atlético Bucaramanga), 8. Édgar Bárcenas (Tapachula), 11. Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), 14. Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), 19. Ricardo Ávila (Gent), 20. Aníbal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), 21. José Luis Rodríguez (Gent).
Forwards: 7. Blas Pérez (Municipal), 9. Gabriel Torres (Huachipato), 10. Ismael Díaz (Deportivo Fabril), 16. Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense), 18. Luis Tejada (Sport Boys).

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Panama’s players and fans celebrate their World Cup qualification, which came on the back of Román Torres’ late winner. Panama had never made it to the tournament before their momentous win over Costa Rica.

Panama qualified for their first ever World Cup on the back of a bit of luck, some good results and a healthy dose of controversy. The equaliser scored by Blas Pérez in their crucial match against Honduras didn’t actually cross the line, but in the absence of video technology the “phantom goal” was allowed to stand before Román Torres stepped up to hand Panama the win. Now they’ve made it, Panama will be looking to show they’re not just making up the numbers, and they have some experienced heads within their team. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo brings plenty of experience from a 15-year international career, while Román Torres and Felipe Baloy lead an experienced defence. In the middle, Gabriel Gómez and Aníbal Godoy form a strong partnership, with Gómez especially skilled at controlling the tempo of the game. Up front, the experience of Pérez, Gabriel Torres and Luis Tejada and the flair of Abdiel Arroyo, Ismael Díaz and José Luis Rodríguez Los Canaleros could present a challenge for opposing defences.

For all that, Panama will still struggle to make it through against opponents who are much more skilled and have more experience of high-level competition. Barely any of Panama’s squad members play their club football in Europe, with most playing in the lower-level leagues of Central America. The World Cup will be a massive jump in terms of the quality of their opponents, and their first match against Belgium could be a reality check for Hernán Dário Gómez’s side. Panama will come to the World Cup with one of the older sides at the tournament, and many of their key players are well into their thirties and past their prime. Meanwhile, their younger players are coming in with little to no experience of top-level competition, and they may find it tough to adjust to the pressure of the World Cup. The loss of Alberto Quintero to injury is also a blow, as the experienced attacking midfielder is one of their most important players going forward. With no World Cup experience, Panama’s players are facing a baptism of fire, and it’s not clear who will stand up.

Star Player: Román Torres

Torres is a centre-back, but he will forever be known as a hero of Panamanian football for his exploits in attack. It was the experienced defender who scored the late winner that sent Los Canaleros through to Russia, sending all of Panama into raucous celebrations. At the World Cup he will provide his side with solid defence and strong leadership, as well as a handy goal threat at set pieces.

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Gabriel Gómez attempts to control the ball during a 2017 Copa América match with Argentina. Gómez is a quality midfielder who controls the tempo of the game and is a key part of Panama’s team.

Key Player: Gabriel Gómez

Gómez is the conductor of Panama’s team, controlling the game from central midfield and setting up their attacking play while shielding the defence. He works hard, and with over 140 caps at international level he knows how to read the game and set the tone for his side. Gómez’s ability to manage the game from the centre of the park could determine Panama’s success in Russia.

One to watch: José Luis Rodríguez

Rodríguez comes into this World Cup with almost no experience at either club or international level. He has been playing with Belgian side Gent’s second team, and the opponents he will face in Russia are a massive step up from anything he has faced before. He is Panama’s wildcard pick, and if given the opportunity he could make a name for himself.

Verdict

In terms of quality, Panama are nowhere near their competition. They have no players playing in top European leagues, and they are thoroughly outmatched by their opposition in Russia. There’s always room for a fairytale, but such a fairytale seems particularly unlikely for Los Canaleros.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Penedo; Machado, Baloy, R Torres, Ovalle; Cooper, Gómez, Godoy, Bárcenas; Pérez, G Torres.

Tunisia

Head Coach: Nabil Maâloul
Captain: Aymen Mathlouthi
Previous Appearances: 4 (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Youssef Msakni (3)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Farouk Ben-Mustapha (Al-Shabab), 16. Aymen Mathlouthi (Al-Batin), 22. Mouez Hassen (Châteauroux).
Defenders: 2. Syam Ben Youssef (Kasımpaşa), 3. Yohan Benalouane (Leicester City), 4. Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), 5. Oussama Haddadi (Dijon), 6. Rami Bedoui (Étoile du Sahel), 11. Dylan Bronn (Gent), 12. Ali Maâloul (Al Ahly), 21. Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek).
Midfielders: 7. Saîf-Eddine Khaoui (Troyes), 13. Ferjani Sassi (Al-Nassr), 14. Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Al-Ahli), 17. Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier), 20. Ghailene Chaalali (Espérance).
Forwards: 8. Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al-Ettifaq), 9. Anice Badri (Espérance), 10. Wahbi Khazri (Rennes), 15. Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), 18. Bassem Srarfi (Nice), 19. Saber Khalifa (Club Africain), 23. Naïm Sliti (Dijon).

Tunisia were the beneficiaries of a fairly soft qualifying group, but it still took until the final day for Nabil Maâloul’s side to seal their spot. Drawn into a difficult group with two tough opponents, Tunisia won’t be favourites to progress, but they have some quality players and could pose a challenge. Wahbi Khazri, Anice Badri, Naïm Sliti and Fakhreddine Ben Youssef form an attack that will be a threat, and Nice young gun Bassem Srarfi could have a big impact coming off the bench. Ghailene Chaalali, Ellyes Skhiri and Ferjani Sassi are all good creators in the middle, and the recovery of defensive midfielder Mohamed Amine Ben Amor is a welcome boost. Down back, Yassine Meriah and Syam Ben Youssef are a strong central defensive pairing, and full-backs Dylan Bronn and Ali Maâloul are both capable players in defence and attack (left-back Maâloul was once the top scorer in the Tunisian league). The Eagles of Carthage are a solid side, and cannot be underestimated.

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Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (left) battles with an opponent during an Africa Cup of Nations clash with Algeria. Ben Amor has recovered from injury in time to play a key midfield role for the Eagles of Carthage.

Unfortunately for them, a combination of an unpleasant draw and injuries to key players means their tournament may not last long. Chaalali, Ben Amor and Khazri have all recovered in time for the World Cup, but they may come in underdone. Even worse, qualification top scorer Youssef Msakni and striker Taha Yassine Khenissi will miss the tournament with their injuries, creating more pressure for Khazri and the rest of the attack. The team’s lack of quality could also come back to bite them. Many of their players have been playing in lower-tier French leagues or other lower-quality competitions, and apart from Khazri very few regularly play against the best in the world. The squad contains 15 players with under 20 international caps, and only captain Aymen Mathlouthi has over 50. This lack of experience at international level, partially borne from the fact that some players have only joined the team since their qualification, could be costly against strong opponents like Belgium and England. If Tunisia want to beat the odds and go through, they will need to fix these problems quickly.

Star Player: Wahbi Khazri

Khazri is Tunisia’s main playmaker, and his skill with the ball at his feet ensures he will be a valuable part of their attack. He is a threat in open play and from set pieces, and he has played himself into form over the course of a strong season with Ligue 1 side Rennes. He comes into the tournament under an injury cloud, but if he hits his best form the Eagles of Carthage will be a dangerous side.

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Wahbi Khazri moves forward with the ball during an Africa Cup of Nations match with Senegal. Khazri is the star of Tunisia’s team, and could have an impact in Russia with his skills.

Key Player: Ghailene Chaalali

Chaalali has only been capped six times for Tunisia, but the 24-year-old has already established himself as a key cog in Nabil Maâloul’s midfield with his ability to create chances and defend solidly. The World Cup is his chance to shine on the big stage, and Tunisia will be relying on him to contribute well in both defence and attack. If he plays well, things will be a lot easier for the Tunisians.

One to watch: Bassem Srarfi

Srarfi is the youngest member of Tunisia’s squad, but he could be one of their most dangerous players. He has been an effective player off the bench for Nice, and the 20-year-old has the pace and skill to be a very potent weapon for the Eagles of Carthage. He is not likely to start, but he will be very exciting coming off the bench late in games.

Verdict

Tunisia have had some unhelpful injuries which could impact their efforts in Russia, and they will struggle to progress from a tough group. They have some skilled players, but it may not be enough.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Mathlouthi; Bronn, Meriah, S Ben Youssef, Maâloul; Sassi, Ben Amor, Chaalali; Badri, Khazri, Sliti.

England

Head Coach: Gareth Southgate
Captain: Harry Kane
Previous Appearances: 14 (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1966)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Harry Kane (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Jordan Pickford (Everton), 13. Jack Butland (Stoke City), 23. Nick Pope (Burnley).
Defenders: 2. Kyle Walker (Manchester City), 3. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), 5. John Stones (Manchester City), 6. Harry Maguire (Leicester City), 12. Kieran Trippier (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Gary Cahill (Chelsea), 16. Phil Jones (Manchester United), 17. Fabian Delph (Manchester City), 18. Ashley Young (Manchester United), 22. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool).
Midfielders: 4. Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), 7. Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), 8. Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), 20. Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur), 21. Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace).
Forwards: 9. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), 10. Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), 11. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), 14. Danny Welbeck (Arsenal), 19. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United).

Despite England’s straightforward qualification, the British press has not begun their traditional singing of the Three Lions’ praises before the World Cup. Maybe they were put off by England’s embarrassing elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, or realised that none of their hubristic predictions, dating back to England’s actual World Cup victory in 1966, had ever come good. Either way, the lack of fanfare could be a blessing in disguise for Gareth Southgate’s team, who do have some quality players. Harry Kane is one of the world’s best strikers, and his combination with excitement machines Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard could be very tough to stop. Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson form an effective shield for the defence with their solid midfield play, and Southgate has an abundance of attacking full-backs who can provide width and quality. A back three of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire could be very hard to break down, and all three are quality ball players who can contribute to the attack.

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Raheem Sterling takes on the defence during a qualifying match against Lithuania. Sterling has immense talent, but he has never found his best form in an English shirt.

They may look solid, but the English will have some issues to deal with if they want to get past the round of 16 and make real inroads at the tournament. Most significantly, they don’t have a goalkeeper. Jordan Pickford will start, but neither he nor his back-up, Jack Butland, have enjoyed brilliant seasons in the Premier League, and the squad’s three keepers have just 12 international caps between them. This inexperience is an issue throughout the squad, with non-starter Gary Cahill the only player with over 50 caps in the 23. Southgate will also need to deal with Sterling, who has attracted plenty of controversy in the lead-up and has not been able to find his devastating Manchester City form when pulling on an English shirt. There is uncertainty as to who is in England’s best team, something Southgate will need to work out. The Three Lions are still likely to progress from a relatively easy group, but these issues could hurt them in the knockouts.

Star Player: Harry Kane

Kane has developed into one of the most dangerous strikers in the world, and his tally of 105 goals in the last four Premier League seasons is a testament to his consistency. He is tall, strong and has excellent skills, and he is the kind of all-round striker England can rely on in Russia. He was appointed captain based on his brilliant performances for club and country, and if that form is on display he will be a force to be reckoned with.

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Harry Kane celebrates after scoring in qualifying against Slovenia. Kane has been named captain for the World Cup, and he will have a chance to showcase his excellent goal-scoring ability.

Key Player: Jordan Henderson

Henderson is coming off a successful season with Liverpool, where he led the club to the final of the Champions League and played a typically influential role in central midfield. He is surrounded by more talented players, but his hard work and willingness to focus on his defensive duties allows him to hold England’s midfield together. If they are going to succeed, they will need him to play well.

One to watch: Trent Alexander-Arnold

Alexander-Arnold is just 19, but he comes into the World Cup in good form and he could make an impact if given the opportunity. Having received his chance at Liverpool after first-choice right-back Nathaniel Clyne went down injured, Alexander-Arnold showed impressive defensive skills and an ability to contribute to attacks with his excellent crosses. He is a set-piece specialist, and with his skillset he could fit in well as one of Southgate’s wing-backs.

Verdict

The English should progress from a relatively simple group, even though they have been known to bomb out spectacularly in the past. In the knockouts, however, it won’t be so straightforward, and their inexperience could come to the fore.
Likely Team (3-4-1-2): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Henderson, Alli, Rose; Lingard; Sterling, Kane.

Prediction

This group seems open-and-shut, but the English have been prone to disappointment and a failure to progress is not out of the question. Belgium’s golden generation should breeze through, and the English, despite their recent history, are good enough to join them. Against Panama and Tunisia, neither of whom come close to their opponents in terms of quality, the two big sides shouldn’t have too many problems, but their clash should be intriguing and could be important in the wider tournament. Tunisia and Panama can’t necessarily be ruled out of contention, and if either side’s defence holds together they could cause a massive upset, but the unfortunate reality for both is that their most meaningful clash is likely to be a consolation game against each other.
1. Belgium, 2. England, 3. Tunisia, 4. Panama