Muscat: Tonight at 10:00pm England will take on Belgium in a matchup between two of the Wolrd Cup's most talented squads in the exclave of Kaliningrad.
While both teams have already qualified for the last 16, the match will decide who tops Group G and their next opponents in the knockout stage.
The leaders of Group G will face the top team in Group H, where either Japan, Senegal, and Colombia vying for a top seeded place.
However, both teams may be looking to avoid victory tonight in the hopes of potentially avoiding Germany and Brazil early in the knocknout stages should both teams progress.
Since England’s 6-1 defeat of Panama on Sunday, both are on identical points and goal tallies for and against. A draw would hand first place to the one with the better disciplinary record.
If that too were tied, a FIFA official would draw lots.
Whoever comes second would also play two of the three knockout rounds to the final in the comfort of Moscow — where Belgium have their camp — whereas the winner faces thousands of air miles taking in Rostov-on-Don, Kazan and St. Petersburg.
England coach Gareth Southgate is unsure winning is an advantage: “We’ve got to think that through,” he said when asked if he might field a weaker side against Belgium.
Like Belgium’s Martinez, he will balance consistency against giving first-choice legs a rest and giving others game time.
A late strike for Panama cost England on goal difference, Southgate noted, leaving their only advantage over Belgium in having picked up just two yellow cards to the Belgians’ three.
Topping Group G means playing whoever will have finished second in Group H earlier on Thursday — Colombia, Senegal or Japan. Southgate said he was fairly indifferent on that.
But where coming second in Group G had once seemed a route to a fearful appointment in Samara with Germany in the quarter-final, the holders now seem unlikely to win Group F. Germany — or Brazil if they overcome stutters to win Group E — are now more likely to stand in the way of whoever tops Group G.
Depending on the outcome of other games, it may not be an advantage to finish top of the group, but both sides insist they won’t take such calculations into account.
“Everyone wants to look at a possible pathway,” Belgium’s Martinez said on Monday, while also stressing: “I don’t think as a professional you can go on a pitch not wanting to win.”
He played down the advantages of not having to travel as far from their Moscow base, saying Russian logistics had been “fantastic”, and he warned that being too tricky in football can backfire.
What is likely, however, is that Belgium coach Roberto Martinez and his English counterpart Gareth Southgate will rest some of their regular starters and give match time to back-up squad players.
Both teams have beaten Tunisia and Panama to reach six points and secure passage to the last 16, so the anticipated battle between the two strongest sides in the group has lost its edge.
“I think it will be an interesting game, a 50-50 game, and both teams are qualified so it will be a strange game,” said Fellaini, who plays in England for Manchester United, having made his name for another Premier League club Everton.
Harry Kane’s involvement is one of the tricky decisions facing Southgate.
The England captain has scored five goals in two games, including his hat-trick against Panama, and while his manager will be reluctant to leave him on the bench, his centrality to England’s hopes is such that he may be wary of him picking up an injury.
This will be just the fourth meeting of the two nations in major tournaments. They have drawn twice in group stage games, and their last-16 match in the 1990 World Cup saw England win 1-0 after extra-time.
By then, both teams will know who they will potentially face in the next round.
Over 2,000 kilometres away in Volgograd, Japan will look to put Poland out of their misery. The Samurai Blue need to avoid defeat to make it to the next round and will fancy their chances against a Polish team that has already been eliminated.
The Poles will be playing for pride as they exit at the group stage yet again. Their fans will be experiencing a since of deja vue as they conclude another underwhelming campaign: they have not progressed to the knockout stages since 1986.
At the same time, in Samara, Senegal will play Colombia in what is expected to be another high octane encounter in one of the most unpredictable groups of this year's World Cup.
Allowing a lead to twice slip from their grasp in their last World Cup game could come back to haunt Senegal.
The west Africans could have ensured qualification to the next phase in Russia in Sunday’s second group match against Japan but are now on shaky ground after playing out a 2-2 draw, even if the permutations are still weighted in their favor.
As the group phase draws to a close, Senegal only need a draw to advance but victory for Colombia will put them into the next round instead, leaving Senegal eliminated if Japan avoid defeat against Poland in Volgograd at the same time.
Colombia could also advance with a draw, but only if Japan lose.
Japan and Senegal head the group on four points each with Colombia one behind after rebounding with a 3-0 thumping of the now-eliminated Poland in Kazan on Sunday.
It was an emphatic reaffirmation of their potential after 10-man Colombia, quarter-finalists in Brazil four years ago, had suffered an upset defeat in their opening game to Japan.
The likes of Falcao and Juan Cuadrado underlined the quality in a team that welcomed back James Rodriguez, top scorer at the last World Cup, to a leading role after starting him from the bench against Japan.
“The team played as a unit and the football emerged from this unity. It led to the goals and now we have a good position in this World Cup,” Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said after the victory.
Senegal will be concerned by the potential of letting slip a favorable position, after kicking off the tournament with a 2-0 win over Poland and then being in command against Japan, only to prove unable to secure all the points.
“We still have our destiny in our own hands,” insisted defender Kalidou Koulibaly, but team mate Alfred Ndiaye warned of a hard task ahead.
“Colombia’s style of play is similar to ours, very physical, moving forward quickly. We know that we must not lose this game. We’re aware that we will have to give everything to qualify,” Ndiaye said. (With Input and Pictures from Reuters)