KALININGRAD, Russia — England and Belgium played a so-called dead rubber in this Russian exclave Thursday night.
A dead rubber is a soccer match that is of no real consequence to the teams involved, and this was the happy sort since both England and Belgium had already qualified for the knockout round of the World Cup. Both teams easily dispatched their first two opponents, the vastly overmatched Tunisia and Panama, without much stress, , or providing real insight into how good either might be. Then Belgium topped England, 1-0, in a game that was more gentlemen’s kickaround than World Cup match. So the mystery continued.
There was something at stake, though: First place in Group G went to Belgium, which means a round of 16 game against Japan but a potential quarterfinal against Brazil on theloaded side of the knockout bracket. Second-place England gets what appears to be, on paper, a far easier path to the semifinals on its side of the pairings, starting with a match against Colombia on Tuesday in Moscow.
After the loss, England coach Gareth Southgate called the upcoming Colombia match “the biggest game in a decade” for England. “We’ve got to just keep improving,” he said. “We talked about momentum. Momentum shifts in games and I think we kept pressing right to the end.”
England and Belgium occasionally played fast Thursday, but they did not play very hard. The game was largely devoid of contact. No one ran through tackles or threw elbows battling for position on corner kicks. England made eight changes to its starting lineup, Belgium nine. For both teams, the mindset seemed to be that the real World Cup would begin at the final whistle.
The lone goal arrived in the 52nd minute, when Belgium striker Adnan Januzaj performed some fancy footwork to get free of Danny Rose on the right side, just inside England’s penalty area, and curled left-footed shot past a splayed Jordan Pickford. England had a few chances but never answered — and did not seem too bothered by that. Marcus Rashford misfired on a breakaway that could have tied the score midway through the second half, then barely shrugged.
Entering play in Russia, Belgium had assumed the role of sexy dark horse — a star-studded team led by Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City and Eden Hazard of Chelsea — that had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals. England was viewed as a work in progress, a young team trying to change its culture from sullen, strategically-challenged underachievers to fearless lovers of the game.
Which one is better, or good enough to go deep into the knockout rounds? That remains anyone’s guess. Both teams poured in goals against Tunisia and Panama, but that was Tunisia and Panama. Thursday’s match, contested mostly by reserves, offered few clues to what lies ahead, and what might be possible.
Thomas Vermaelen, the Belgium defender, said he has always considered his team “outsiders with an opportunity to win.”
Southgate said England could not consider itself “a top team until we start to beat some of those top teams.”
In other words, these teams have no idea who they are yet, either. But there is enough hope, and enough skepticism, to stretch across the Strait of Dover, which separates their countries.
Here is a sampling of it.
Why England Will Win the World Cup
— England is great at set pieces. England came into this tournament without a goal from a corner kick in 72 attempts at major tournaments, dating to 2010. Southgate, who took over the team in 2016, had the revolutionary idea of practicing them — a lot. So far, so good. England has four goals off corner kicks, including one that resulted from a penalty kick earned on a corner against Panama and another from a free kick. Defenses are disorganized at big tournaments, where top players are often thrown together for only a few weeks. That makes set pieces golden opportunities to score. England clearly knows how to take advantage.
— England is healthy, rested and young. So much of making it through the World Cup is keeping your most important players fresh and available. Without having to worry about beating Belgium, Southgate is expected to rest key players and give his reserves, including midfielder Eric Dier, a chance to stay sharp. (Belgium plans to do the same thing.) But England, and this goes for Belgium, too, heads into the round of 16 without having had to endure the mental or physical stress of, say, Argentina. England is also one of the youngest teams at the World Cup, with an average age of 26, same as Germany in 2014 and Spain in 2010, when each won the title.
— Harry Kane. The Tottenham striker is not Cristiano Ronaldo, but England’s captain scored 41 goals in 48 appearances for Spurs last season and has five goals in two games in Russia, making him the tournament’s top scorer even though he rested Thursday. Kane basically scores every game these days. “Everyone knows by now,” Dier, who plays with Kane at Spurs, said of Kane’s growing reputation. “He’s been doing it at a consistent level for a long time.”
Why England Is Doomed
— England has not played a top team. That was a brilliant six-goal performance against Panama, but the United States beat Panama 4-0 four nights before it lost to Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for Russia. Consider the Panama win meaningless and the Tunisia squeaker a game that wasn’t nearly that close. And while Belgium has looked like a contender, Thursday’s match was often friendlier than a friendly. Belgium's second string beat England's second string. So what?
— England does not have an elite playmaker. World Cup champions tend to have a driving force in the middle of the field who runs the operation. Neymar and Philippe Coutinho do this for Brazil. Andrés Iniesta still does it for Spain. Argentina, for all of its problems, still has Lionel Messi in a pinch. England does not have any player on that level in the middle. Jordan Henderson, who did not play Thursday, is solid. Neymar or Andrea Pirlo he is not.
— The English media say England should win. For months, the game plan was all about lowering expectations. It mostly worked. England had been terrible at big tournaments for a decade or more, so the news media bought into the narrative that expecting anything better would be silly. Then came the thorough domination of Panama and Tunisia. By Wednesday, the English press was essentially asking Belgium Manager Roberto Martínez to decide if England was really, really great or just really great. This is usually a recipe for disaster.
Why Belgium Will Win the World Cup
— Belgium has countless weapons. Pick your poison. Do opponents want to focus their defensive energy on stopping Hazard or De Bruyne or Romelu Lukaku, assuming he recovers from an ankle injury? Can they solve a sturdy back line? Can they beat one of the world’s best goalkeepers, Thibaut Courtois? Belgium is as balanced a team as there is.
— Belgium does not panic. Belgium can win slow or fast. The Red Devils played 70 minutes without scoring in their first match against Panama. They remained patient and methodical. They didn’t rush and eventually figured out how to break down what often became a back line of five or six defenders. Then they got a first score and two more in the final 20 minutes. Against Tunisia, Belgium had two goals in the first 16 minutes and three more before it was through. Panama coach Hernán Darío Gómez said Belgium, like England, was “frightening” with the ball at its feet, even if that version of Belgium was not on display Thursday.
— It is Belgium’s time. This is a golden generation of Belgian players, a diverse mix that reflects an increasingly diverse country. And mostly the best players are all in their mid- and late 20s, the age at which soccer players generally enter their prime. Few had better seasons than De Bruyne did for Manchester City, but Martinez said his team is more than a few players deep. “You need to try to create a group that everyone is in sync that everyone is trying to contribute,” he said Thursday. “Every player has been involved.”
Why Belgium Won’t Win the World Cup
— History. With a few exceptions, teams that win the World Cup tend to be teams that have won the World Cup. There have only been two first-time winners since 1982, and one, France, was playing at home. Belgium looked dangerous through four games in Brazil, then could barely touch the ball against Argentina in its quarterfinal. Winning the World Cup is probably too much to ask for a country of 11 million that has never even been to the semifinals.
— Roberto Martínez does not appear to be a world-class coach. Martínez is a charming Spaniard, fluent in multiple languages. He smiles freely, and he comes off as warm and happy. “Martínez is a really good guy,” Southgate said Wednesday. Then again, Martínez has never had a winning percentage better than 50 percent in stints at Wigan, Swansea and Everton, which fired him in 2016.
— Romelu Lukaku is not 100 percent. Lukaku, the Manchester United striker, is big and fast and nearly impossible to stop one-on-one. With four goals already, he is arguably the player Belgium’s opponents most fear, even more than Hazard and De Bruyne. He injured his ankle against Tunisia, and sat out Thursday night. Scans came back negative, but Martínez called it “a really difficult knock.” While he predicted Lukaku would soon be healthy, playing World Cup-knockout-round soccer on a shaky ankle is extremely difficult.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.