Realisation in Russia: Belgium & England/Group G

Group G: Are Belgium and England contenders or chokers?

It will be a battle of the Premier League stars in Belgium versus England. Eden Hazard (far left) had 12 league goals in a relatively subdued season with deposed champions Chelsea, while Raheem Sterling hit the net 18 times in Manchester City's runaw
It will be a battle of the Premier League stars in Belgium versus England. Eden Hazard (left) had 12 league goals in a relatively subdued season with deposed champions Chelsea, while Raheem Sterling hit the net 18 times in Manchester City's runaway title romp.PHOTOS: REUTERS

Pressure of golden generation tag has proved to be a bane for talented sides of both nations

One is a country of 11 million people whose football team failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and have won only once - gold at the 1920 Olympics.

The other is the birthplace of modern football, the home of the world's most popular football league and perennially talked up as contenders ever since their first of 15 Finals appearances in 1950 and triumph in 1966.

With young players shining in their respective leagues this season and experienced stars in their prime, much of the talk has centred on whether Belgium and England, the two favourites in Group G, can rise to the occasion in Russia and realise their potential.

Belgium have a so-called "golden generation" of players such as Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku, but face the pressure of not living up to the tag yet again after quarter-final exits at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.

Hazard and de Bruyne are at the peak of their powers but this Cup represents a last-chance saloon for veterans like Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini, who will be 34 or older at the 2022 edition.

Their coach Roberto Martinez, a Spaniard who speaks none of Belgium's official languages, is keen to avoid the fate of England's own "golden generation", which for a decade till the 2010 World Cup mixed the occasional sublime performance with the ignominy of failing to qualify for Euro 2008.

 

"You do try to find out what stopped England going on to achieve something," said the former Wigan, Swansea and Everton boss. "You speak to people who played against that team or were in the dressing room.

 

"It's very interesting. There is never one reason why things don't click into place, it's almost a combination. You learn that you need to find the level of commitment of everyone to become a team.

"I'm not bothered by the label one way or the other, but to be the Golden Generation, you need to win gold. We need to make it a Golden Generation."

There was certainly nothing "golden" about England during the years when the spine of the team was made up of stars strutting their stuff in the Premier League.

There were John Terry and Rio Ferdinand in defence, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in midfield, and Wayne Rooney in his prime leading the attack.

Ferdinand has suggested that the golden tag was more of a burden than anything, and this year's squad will have less pressure than any senior England team have had for a long time.


  • Belgium

    KEY MAN: KEVIN DE BRUYNE

    De Bruyne is the dynamo that makes the well-oiled Manchester City machine tick, topping the Premier League with 16 assists last season. Belgium have a group of disparate but talented attacking personnel and de Bruyne's work rate, coupled with a prodigious passing range, could be the crucial ingredient to make it a potent mix.

    MANAGER: Roberto Martinez

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 13

    BEST RESULT: Fourth (1986)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Quarter-finals



    England

    KEY MAN: HARRY KANE

    England's youngest World Cup captain at 24 years old is not a man who lacks belief - he thinks England can go all the way. His pedigree as one of the world's top strikers is not in doubt. He scored 41 times for Tottenham last season and is his country's most natural finisher since Alan Shearer. He can also count on club-mates Dele Alli and Eric Dier to supply him with the ammunition.

    MANAGER: Gareth Southgate

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 15

    BEST RESULT: Winners (1966)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Group stage



    Panama

    KEY MAN: LUIS TEJADA

    Tejada, 36, is one of six members in the Panama squad with more than 100 caps, and the country's first World Cup outing is likely to be his international swansong. The striker is Panama's joint top scorer with 43 goals, and one more in Russia would be a fitting feather to his cap after 17 years of service to his country.

    MANAGER: Hernan Darío Gomez

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 1

    BEST RESULT: Nil

    2014 WORLD CUP: Did not qualify



    Tunisia

    KEY MAN: WAHBI KHAZRI

    Khazri, 27, has impressed while on loan from Sunderland at French club Rennes last season, scoring 11 goals in 22 games, and has played against many players from the English and Belgian teams in the Premier League. He will not fancy plying his trade for Sunderland in the English third tier next season and the World Cup presents the perfect shop window.

    MANAGER: Nabil Maaloul

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 5

    BEST RESULT: Group stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006) 2014

    WORLD CUP: Did not qualify


    KEY MATCH

    England v Belgium (June 29, 2am)

    DID YOU KNOW?

    Defender Gary Cahill is the only man in the England squad to have more than 40 caps.

Gareth Southgate's squad could rightly be called an Under-26 side, with an average age of 25.4 and only three out of 23 men are over 30.

Without the usual stifling media scrutiny, the shackles are off for the young and fearless generation of Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Marcus Rashford to take Russia by storm.

And, in Harry Kane, England's youngest World Cup captain, the Three Lions have a world-class striker to see off the lesser lights of Tunisia and Panama comfortably.

Tunisia, ranked 14th in the world, could prove a potential banana skin for the group's top two, with the Eagles of Carthage hungry for their first Cup victory since 1978 after going unbeaten in qualifying.

Midfielder Wahbi Khazri, on loan at French Ligue 1 club Rennes from English third-tier side Sunderland, will captain a team comprising eight Tunisian league players. But they have lost influential playmaker Youssef Msakni to injury, harming their chances of making the knockout stage.

Belgium, England and Tunisia are expected to get maximum points against Panama, arguably the biggest underdogs at the World Cup.

The chatter from the Panamanian camp has revolved around enjoying the experience and playing with dignity, with the tournament the reward for a group of veterans who have toiled for their country for more than a decade.

Even a single point is cause for celebration for the Central American nation with a population smaller than Singapore's.

The stakes are far higher for Belgium and England, whose June 29 (Singapore time) clash could decide the group winners.

Contenders or chokers? We will know in the coming weeks.


Talking points

WHO WILL BE ENGLAND'S NO. 1?

Exit Joe Hart, England's first choice in the last three major tournaments. Enter Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland, or Nick Pope? Hart, 31, paid the price for a shaky campaign while on loan at West Ham, where he conceded 39 goals in 19 games, but there is no other English custodian with anything near his international experience (75 caps).

Pope was Burnley's Player of the Year, keeping 11 clean sheets, but was without a cap at senior level when Gareth Southgate announced his squad. The battle looks to be between Stoke's Butland and Pickford, with the Everton man holding the edge owing to his ability with his feet.

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM PANAMA ON THEIR DEBUT

This year's "happy-to-just-turn-up" team. Coach Hernan Dario Gomez has variously said that the country have "qualified before our time" and that they were what "the other 31 countries wanted to get in the draw". A 6-0 loss to Switzerland in March will only have driven home the reality of their situation.

Expect the Panamanians to play a physical, bruising game with the aim of keeping the scores down and their heads high.

BELGIUM'S ENGLAND CONNECTION

Fifteen of Roberto Martinez's 28-man provisional squad are employed by English clubs, including stars Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku. Familiarity may or may not translate into a tangible advantage on the pitch. But ultimately, all the England connection says about the two teams is this: England have the superior league, but Belgium have the superior team. Only the latter matters at the World Cup.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline 'Contenders or chokers?'. Print Edition | Subscribe