By Neil Leverett
- England play Belgium in World Cup third-place playoff in St. Petersburg on Saturday afternoon
- Three Lions look to rouse themselves after losing to Croatia in extra time on Wednesday
- Gareth Southgate may opt to ring changes for final game in Russia
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – We look back at Wednesday evening’s semi-final heartbreak and preview this weekend’s World Cup swansong for both England and Belgium
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Lessons learned in Moscow
When Kieran Trippier opened the scoring for England against Croatia embryonic throes of the semi-final contest, England had their tails up and were finding the going the more favourable in the opening period.
But the tide of fortune eventual swung toward Zlatko Dalic’s men, and after Harry Kane spurned a glorious chance to open a two-goal lead, the pendulum of momentum began to swing.
Many have pointed the finger of blame at having dropped deeper in the second period, but it was regrettably the old chestnut of England’s questionable defensive ability that rearer it’s ugly head in defeat.
Whether blame should fall at the feet of John Stones for letting slip of Mario Mandzukic for Croatia’s winner, the bigger than needs to be addressed is how to strengthened undoubtedly the biggest chink in the Three Lions’ armour. For now however, Wednesday was perhaps a learning curve that this particular pride of Lions needed to embrace.
English pride restored
As the final echoes of ‘Three Lions’ fade off away for now, England’s Russian odyssey has not only sowed the seeds of hope of a hungrier national side, but their exploits have united a fractured nation, with the prospect of another exhaustive qualifying campaign now a more palatable prospect.
In tournaments gone by and after such crushing of hope, it will be refreshing to approach a new chapter of this journey with a certain skip in England fans’ steps.
For too long English football had been a laughing stock, but after perhaps the most unpredictable of World Cup’s the Three Lions rose to the occasion and are now firmly back in the nation’s good books.
Qatar 2022 still realistic goal
Whilst for many it seemed that football was coming home before schedule, finishing as statistically the fourth best side in the world at worst now means the FA’s initial target of winning the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is now an attainable goal.
For squad of such inexperience that has condemned the failures of England past, and progressed farther than few could have realistically imagined, qualification for Euro 2020 is now the target – not least with both the semi-finals and final taking place on home soil at Wembley Stadium in two years’ time.
By then, Southgate will have a honed squad at his disposal as well a number of exciting talents coming through the ranks, with names like Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, Fulham winger Ryan Sessegnon and Bayer Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey lined up for a fast-track route into the England set-up in the very near future.
As both the U-17 and u-20’s proved in becoming world champions last summer, the talent is there for a bright future for the Three Lions. The task now is to nurture it.
Can Three Lions roar back?
After making their first major tournament semi-final in 28 years, taking the final step to only a second World Cup final was one beyond England.
As the stars appeared to be aligning to the Three Lions, Gareth Southgate’s men had their hopes shot down after Trippier’s sublime free-kick gave the men in white the lead in Moscow.
Ivan Perisic’s second half goal sucked the life out of England, as a buoyed Vatreni swarmed forward in numbers. In truth, Croatia’s winner was on the cards for much of the additional thirty minutes at the Luzhniki Stadium but it did nothing to cushion the blow of missing out on Sunday’s showpiece finale.
It was a tough pill to swallow, but in the long-term and since midweek the achievement England had reached of the last four should and will be celebrated in the coming days and weeks.
England are not used to losing a knockout game and having to come back to play again in the same tournament, but for the first time since Italy in 1990 Southgate’s side will play for third place in St. Petersburg. The question now is, in game a notorious for being little more than a tournament warm-down, do England have the fight to respond?
Changes could again be on cards
As both Three Lions and Red Devil prepare to face each other for the second time this summer, the chance of fans being robbed again of the dream-billed Premier League-heavy clash could once more occur.
The third-place play-off is often a little more than a testimonial in nature, but there is hope that both sides could field strong sides in their tournament bow in the Motherland.
Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez has suggested he will field a strong team, and whilst England are licking their wounds after Wednesday night’s woe, Kane could be denied the golden boot by his opposite number Romelu Lukaku which should see both forwards make the starting XI.
Aside from that, the starting XIs could take on a different look, but again with the League of Nations tournament beginning in two months time, momentum will be a crucial with the top sides in Europe set to face off – which in the case of the two sides is no less true.
Belgium play England in the third-place play-off on Saturday afternoon at the Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia at 3pm BST
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