Belgium and England meet on Thursday evening at 7:00 pm BST in what promises to be one of the more intriguing group stage clashes of the 2018 World Cup.
Both go into the match with equal records – two games played, two games won, eight goals scored and two conceded. Additionally, both teams approach the match with a healthy amount of caution having repeatedly failed to live up to pre-tournament hype in recent decades despite possessing abundant individual talent.
There are, however, reasons for optimism ahead of this crucial World Cup Group G decider. England kicked off their campaign with a 2-1 win over Tunisia courtesy of a double from Harry Kane. Their performance on that night could quite easily have yielded a more one-sided result, though they made up for any lack of clinical finishing there in their second outing, recording their biggest World Cup win with a 6-1 thrashing of Panama.
Belgium have enjoyed an equally assured start to the competition. After beating Panama 3-0 they comfortably dismissed Tunisia 5-2, with two goals each from Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard and Manchester United hitman Romelu Lukaku, as well as one late strike from Michy Batshuayi.
One of the themes of this game regards who they may draw in the second round – both have, after all, already secured qualification for the last 16. However, this match represents a real and valuable test for the two teams. Neither has yet faced opposition perceived to be 'on their level', and so a win here could boost confidence going forward.
HOW WILL THEY LINE UP?
Belgium boss Roberto Martinez hinted at the possibility of resting players for the final group game, saying: "The reality is that we are qualified and in a tournament like the World Cup, you're only as good as the 23 players. There will be opportunities for other players."
With this in mind, it is possible that Lukaku will be rested after sitting out a recent training session, while Vincent Kompany is highly unlikely to start having missed both of his team's opening two games through injury. Consequently, Dedryck Boyata should start at the heart of the back three within Martinez's 3-4-2-1 shape, with Batshuayi potentially replacing Lukaku up front.
If he's feeling brave, England manager Gareth Southgate may be similarly tempted to rest Harry Kane, bringing in one of Marcus Rashford or Jamie Vardy to partner Raheem Sterling atop his 3-5-2 system. Likewise, Ruben Loftus-Cheek may again start ahead of Dele Alli, who wasn't fully fit for the win over Panama.
However, assuming both teams want to top the group, or at least don't want to lose momentum and confidence ahead of the knockout rounds, they would be well advised to field strong line-ups. Below is how they could both shape up.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT: ENGLAND'S SET PIECE THREAT
Before this World Cup got underway, several analysts suggested that set pieces would be the most influential tactical aspect of the tournament. So far this proved to be the case, with over half of the first 50 goals scored coming from set plays. Promisingly for England, they have been among the more productive sides in this particular area.
Their opening goal of the competition came from a corner kick, with Kane attacking the six-yard box before tapping in after a John Stones header was deflected to his feet. His second, England's winner versus Tunisia, came from the exact same route. He attacked the six-yard box from a corner and a Stones header found its way to him to head home.
Against Panama, England demonstrated the work they have done on set pieces with a well-worked free kick from just outside the opposition penalty box. Kieran Trippier played a short pass forward to Jordan Henderson, who peeled away from the box. Henderson played a first-time chipped diagonal ball to the far side of the box for Kane, who headed into the centre of the six-yard box. Raheem Sterling was there to finish; while his header was saved, Stones nodded in the rebound.
Gareth Southgate has employed Scottish former striker Allan Russell to help the team with their attacking set pieces, saying: "Allan has an attention to detail that I liked and thought it was something we hadn't necessarily put some additional focus on in the past." On the evidence so far, Russell's work is paying off. Consequently, Belgium must be alert to any corners or free kicks they concede in their own half.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT: BELGIUM'S COMBINATION PLAY
The general consensus pre-tournament was that this Belgium team were an exceptional group of individuals, but not so effective a unit. To an extent, that opinion has been challenged by their impressive opening two performances, particularly in an attacking sense.
Martinez appears to have figured out how best to use his key players, with Kevin De Bruyne taking up a deeper role as he has often done with Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, and Eden Hazard operating as an inside forward within a similar system to that he plays so effectively in at Chelsea. The midfield setup has enabled some nice attacking moves, one of which is seen below against Tunisia.
In this example, right wing-back Thomas Meunier receives the ball on the right flank. Hazard, the left inside forward, moves towards him in the right inside channel to offer a passing option. Meunier passes to Hazard, who steps over the ball and allows it to run to Dries Mertens, the right inside forward, who has drifted into a more central area. Simultaneously, Hazard makes a darting run behind his marker to receive a through ball from Mertens.
Ultimately, the above move led to Belgium's opening goal against Tunisia. Moments after the sequence depicted, Hazard was brought down inside the box, winning a penalty that he stepped up to convert. This attack involved diagonal passes inside from the wings behind the opposition midfield line, dummies, third-man runs, lay-off passes; in short, it demonstrated that Martinez's attackers are absolutely on the same wavelength.
Belgium could use similar passing patterns to draw out and penetrate England's three-man midfield. From there, their three-man attack of Mertens, Hazard and Batshuayi could cause serious problems for their opposition's defensive line.
Both teams are defensively questionable at this early stage in the World Cup, something underlined by the fact only one clean sheet has been kept in their four combined games so far. It is therefore probable that, while their set piece and attacking qualities have come to the fore recently, their respective defensive vulnerabilities will decide this game.
Southgate must decide how and where England press. His side defended aggressively and high up the pitch in their opening group games, and they may want to continue this policy against Belgium rather than take up the more passive, deeper approach they employed in friendlies against the likes of Italy and Brazil.
Operating in a mid- or deep 5-3-2 block could leave them open to the blind side movement of Hazard and Mertens, as well as the penetrative passing of De Bruyne, so it may be wise to instead apply pressure to a back line lacking when it comes to mobility and cohesive build-up play in an attempt to block, discourage or intercept passes to the aforementioned trio.
Belgium have often taken up a 5-2-3 shape when defending, though that is something they must reconsider here if they are to avoid being overloaded in midfield and cope with the forward runs of Jesse Lingard and the movements of Sterling and Kane.
One of the most important individuals in their defensive play will be Yannick Ferreira Carrasco. The winger has been deployed at left wing-back by Martinez with some success, though he often finds himself in surprisingly high and central positions during the attacking phase. This only leaves the team open down their left side in defensive transition, something England could exploit through the forward runs and exceptional crossing of Kieran Trippier.
It could be argued that England are the more coherent team, particularly from a defensive perspective, though Belgium undoubtedly have the better individual players. With both already through and therefore having little reason to overexert themselves, a draw would not be a strange result.