There was never any real doubt that England will beat Panama to secure their place in the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup. The Central Americans are among the weakest at this summer’s tournament and put up little fight as Gareth Southgate’s men walked all over them, registering their biggest ever World Cup victory with a 6-1 win.
Now, England can look forward to the next round of the competition before they have even faced Belgium in their final group game. Ordinarily, that fixture would be used as a gauge to measure where the Three Lions are as a team right now, but such is the nature of the group, and the way the fixtures have fallen, there might not be too much to be drawn from the clash against the Red Devils. They too have qualified for the last 16 already.
Southgate has already hinted that he might make changes for Thursday’s game against Roberto Martinez’s Belgium. He has options on the bench, after all, and this match presents him with the rare opportunity to experiment and test out new methods midway through a major tournament. That doesn’t happen often, particularly in the case of England.
“We’ve got to think that through,” Southgate said when asked whether he would make changes to his team for the fixture. “We’ve got momentum and we’ve had good consistency in our performances. Equally, I trust all the squad. Some of them haven’t played in a couple of weeks and we are going to need players that haven’t played so far as this tournament progresses. So we’ve got to balance these things over the next few days really.”
From a Belgian perspective, Martinez has also admitted that changes could be made to his starting lineup. What we could see on Thursday is a clash between two sides who have their sights on the next game rather than the one being played. That doesn’t bode well for the match’s entertainment value.
But in terms of England’s mentality, this will serve them well. The Three Lions have scored eight goals in their opening two games, with captain Harry Kane leading the Golden Boot standings. In other circumstances, this would have raised expectations to new heights. But the scenario means their feet are being kept on the ground.
Equally, they are playing with confidence garnered by those opening group game wins over Tunisia and Panama. Wins breed self-assurance regardless of who they are recorded against. England are playing with a certain swagger at the moment and that could carry them deep into the tournament.
Belgium and England will test each other, but not even this game will provide a defining judgment on the qualities of the two teams. Particularly in the latter’s case, we won’t find out just how good they are until the round of 16. That might be a good thing from their standpoint.
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