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WORLD CUP 2018

When England play Belgium, neither may really want to win

Moscow

TO win, or not to win? Tug some jerseys, or avoid yellow cards? England and Belgium face a World Cup conundrum ahead of Thursday's showdown in Kaliningrad - is it better to finish second rather than win Group G?

England coach Gareth Southgate and his Belgian counterpart Roberto Martinez have played down such talk.

Yet a troubled start for Germany at the tournament means that the Group G winner risks facing either the defending champions or a fearsome Brazil earlier in the knockout rounds.

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England and Belgium will have a better idea of future opponents after Wednesday's games are over.

Since England's 6-1 defeat of Panama on Sunday, both the Three Lions (England's nickname) and Belgium are sure to progress from Group G to the last 16 with, for now, identical points and goal tallies for and against.

A draw would hand first place to the one with the better disciplinary record in Russia. If that too were tied, a Fifa official would draw lots to determine the group winner.

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 travelling to Rostov-on-Don, Kazan and St Petersburg.

England coach Southgate is unsure if winning is an advantage. "We have 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.

"We still are top of the disciplinary count," Southgate told the BBC. "But we don't really know if that is going to be an advantage."

Topping Group G means playing whoever will have finished second in Group H earlier on Thursday - Colombia, Senegal or Japan. Southgate said that 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 their early stutters to win Group E - are now more likely to stand in the way of whoever tops Group G.

Martinez insisted that he was giving no thought to the issue. He warned: "Football has got a strange knack of punishing you when you don't treat things professionally." AFP