England’s 2018 World Cup group stage battle with Belgium is more than a mere potential pool decider in Russia.
So many of Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils play for Premier League teams – over half the squad in fact – that it adds extra spice to the match. Who are the familiar faces we should see line-up against the Three Lions in Kaliningrad on Thursday, 28 June?
Belgium’s established first-choice goalkeeper is Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, while Liverpool stopper Simon Mignolet acts as backup for club and country. In front of Courtois, one of the issues Martinez has addressed with Belgium is including all of his best defenders.
There’s been a tactical tweak since the Spaniard took over from Marc Wilmots to a back three. This allows Tottenham Hotspur pair Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen to play either side of Manchester City’s Premier League title-winning captain Vincent Kompany.
Kompany has had fitness problems in recent years, but another reason for the change in setup is it gets the best out of wing-backs who have the legs to get forward and give cover when the Red Devils don’t have the ball. When they are in possession, Vertonghen is certainly comfortable enough to step out.
Midfield options abound for Belgium, who are the favourites at William Hill to beat England at 29/20 in the Group G game. Man City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne is a must-have for Martinez as he’s been making assists for fun and also chipping in with plenty of goals since arriving at the Etihad.
If a more physical presence is required in the engine room, then Marouane Fellaini is a go-to option as a Red Devil for club and country. Spurs’ Mousa Dembele is a little further down the Belgian pecking order in truth, but still brings sureness of touch and effectiveness from deep if called upon.
Martinez keeps faith with Nacer Chadli among his supporting cast despite an injury-hit season and Premier League relegation with West Bromwich Albion. This can be at least something of a shop window for him if he can get on the pitch.
There’s just one small problem for Chadli. He occupies similar areas as Belgium national captain Eden Hazard. The Chelsea star is expected to shine against Panama and Tunisia, so should come into the England encounter full of confidence.
Former Stamford Bridge teammate Romelu Lukaku is a lock to lead the line because, under Martinez, the Manchester United striker has become his country’s all-time top goalscorer. Given the nod and having seen off long-time centre-forward rival Christian Benteke, who hasn’t even made the squad for Russia due to poor form at Crystal Palace, Lukaku has flourished by scoring 20 international goals between Euro 2016 and this World Cup.
That just leaves Chelsea-owned Michy Batshuayi as backup for the lone striker spot. The signing of Olivier Giroud by Antonio Conte over the winter saw him loaned to Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund where Batshuayi was prolific during the second half of last season.