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28th Jun 2018

World Cup Comments: If England play for second place they may as well go home

Throwing the Belgium game would send the wrong message to the players and the fans

Reuben Pinder

What are we so afraid of?

For the first time in a very long time, England fans will be able to enjoy watching the final group game at a World Cup safe in the knowledge that qualification is secure. What a luxury.

In fact, according to some, losing the game could theoretically be actually good because it would give the team an ‘easier‘ run to the final. Finishing in second place in the group would put England on the side of the draw with fewer traditionally strong teams, leading many to believe that Gareth Southgate should effectively throw the game against Belgium by rotating the squad and trying to pick up a few yellow cards.

It is, quite frankly, an insane idea. Instructing a team to make sure they don’t win a match because they’re scared of meeting Brazil in the quarter finals sends the wrong message to the players. This England side should be ambitious; they have performed well thus far and want to win the whole tournament. The only option is to try to win every game.

Not only does trying to throw a match go against the spirit of the game, but it’s very likely that such a plan would blow up in their faces in the next round. Imagine the national shame if Southgate made 10 changes and played out a France-vs-Denmark-esque drab 0-0, only to be knocked out by Colombia in the round of 16.

Self-sabotage resulting in failure would be embarrassing. If you’re going to get knocked out, you may as well go down swinging.

Wanting to avoid Brazil while simultaneously proclaiming that football is coming home demonstrates the two contrasting complexes that pervade the English football psyche. We’re plucky little England, and we are going to win the World Cup… but only if we can avoid the big boys. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

Would it not make much more sense to think of the Belgium match as a chance to hone our playing style even more, give a few players some more game time – Rashford, Dier et al. – and as a chance to boost team morale even more by beating a very strong team?

It’s also worth stating that Brazil have not been the swashbuckling attacking side we remember from the Joga Bonito era. They have been carried by Philippe Coutinho in every game so far. Neymar has shown glimpses of magic but hasn’t taken control of games as he did four years ago.

England, meanwhile, are playing with the sort of energy that we’ve always dreamed they would. They are confident, young, quick, strong and fearless – and while they may well improve in all those areas in the next few years – they possess these qualities now. Today.

Fearing opponents is pointless. Do your homework, of course. Suss out their strengths and weaknesses. But intentionally trying not to win is never a good idea, and Southgate knows that.

He has made no bones about the fact that England will try to win tonight, while Roberto Martínez is expected to make ten changes. That’s his prerogative, but it seems risky given the problems that already exist within that squad.