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Belgium and England hard to separate

Third-place playoff
ITV1, 3pm Saturday


The excitement of England's World Cup campaign was deflated by their semi-final loss to Croatia but Gareth Southgate can look back with satisfaction - and his fringe players can do Three Lions fans proud by putting in a decent performance in the third-place playoff against Belgium in Saint Petersburg.

It is a game both teams could have done without and there is a strong chance the managers will reward players who have been largely overlooked for starting places.

There may be a handful of first-team regulars retained and the race to be the tournament's top scorer - Belgium's Romelu Lukaku is two goals behind England's Harry Kane - provides an interesting storyline.

However, Southgate and Belgium boss Roberto Martinez will also have an eye on the future and won't want to damage relationships with some of the clubs by using players who are mentally and physically fatigued.

Assuming it is largely Belgium reserves versus England reserves, punters will have a pretty good idea of what to expect because the teams sent out second-string sides for their Group G contest in Kaliningrad - both had already qualified for the last 16 by beating Tunisia and Panama.

Belgium were the better side on that occasion and deserved their 1-0 victory but it was a game of few clear-cut chances and Thibaut Courtois was required to make an excellent save to deny Marcus Rashford a second-half equaliser.

England started that contest as narrow favourites but the match result market has a very different look this time with Belgium a shade of odds-against to win inside 90 minutes.

Belgium have had the extra day to get over their World Cup elimination, and their semi-final did not go to extra-time, as England's did. But given the strong likelihood of wholesale changes, it is doubtful whether the extra preparation time and freshness will be a major factor.

Adnan Januzaj was the Red Devils' matchwinner in Kaliningrad, scoring his first goal at senior international level, and the former Manchester United man should be handed another chance to impress.

He gets a 14-1 quote to score the first goal but a better option is to side with his teammate Thorgan Hazard who is 14-1 to net first and 5-1 to notch at any time.

At international level Hazard is a still battling to emerge from the shadow of his older brother Eden. However, he is now 25 and firmly established at Borussia Moenchengladbach, where he netted ten league goals last season.

He was a regular scorer for Belgium in international youth football, netting ten goals in 23 games for the Under-19s and nine in 15 for the Under-21s, and this may be his chance to press his claims to be sleected more often.

England's likely line-up features fewer goal threats and there will be an onus on the forwards to deliver.

Rashford could be a candidate to take over free-kick duties with Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young, the first and second choices, likely to miss out.

Eric Dier, a regular free-kick taker during the Roy Hodgson era, may also be considered and is 33-1 to score the opening goal.

Overall, it is a game which is unlikely to set the pulse racing and the pattern could be similar to the group-stage contest which featured just six shots on target – two from England and four from Belgium.

Another tight match is likely and it may be heading for extra-time.

Recommendations
Draw
T Hazard to score at any time

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Match in Focus

19:00 Mo 20Aug ELEV

Valencia v Atl Madrid

Home Win Draw Away Win
Key stats
  • The corresponding fixture last season ended goalless
Expert verdict
Both teams have scored in just one of the last five meetings between these two sides and their opening-weekend meeting in Valencia could be a tentative affair. Visitors Atletico boasted the best defensive record in La Liga last term, conceding just 22 goals, and can sound out a Valencia outfit who fired two blanks in their final four league games in 2017-18.