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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Unlike Italia 90, for Belgium and England defeat in Russia offers certain benefits

David Platt's extra-time winner sent England through to the semi-finals 28 years ago. Before Thursday's final World Cup Group G game between its top two, it's odd to wonder what matters most now

The anniversary fell on Tuesday. It was 28 years to the day. “Still gives me goose bumps,” tweeted Gary Lineker, whose own part in it was to turn to face the cameras in the scrum of celebration, his face showing his disbelief. Paul Gascoigne had taken a fast bowler’s run-up to a free kick, shaping to shoot, and instead chipped the ball in. David Platt swivelled and volleyed in. “One of life’s rare, perfect moments,” said the scorer of his first international goal.

It was one of the World Cup’s latest goals, coming in the 119th minute. For England, it was one of the greatest. It was Belgium 0-1 England in 1990 and a surge to the semi-finals gathered pace. “I bet we’re talking two weeks maximum, but it changed my life,” Platt told Simon Hart in his book World In Motion. World Cups can be about moments and a mediocre game generated one. After the forgettable fare came the iconic images of Chris Waddle and Terry Butcher dancing in uncoordinated, Englishmen-abroad style to the terrace chant "Let’s all have a disco".

Twenty-eight years on, as England and Belgium reconvene, there might be a path to a semi-final for one. It risks accusations they are getting ahead of themselves, taking progress from the last 16 for granted, but the context is altogether stranger than in their last World Cup meeting. Then the equation was simple: win or bust.

Now defeat offers certain benefits: a place in the half of the draw where it is impossible to face France, Argentina, Portugal or Uruguay before the final. Playing to lose? “For our country, that would be a very difficult mindset to have,” England manager Gareth Southgate said. He has talked about keeping up the momentum. The Golden Boot-chasing Harry Kane could keep his place in the attack, rather than being rested.

Changes may be limited. There are reasons to give Danny Rose, who in an ideal world may be Southgate’s preferred left wing-back, a first start of the tournament; to give the workaholic Jordan Henderson a day off so Eric Dier can start; and to unleash Marcus Rashford, though seemingly not at Kane’s expense. A fit-again Dele Alli will get some game time, though England have to determine how much is right.

They appear believers in the old cliché of taking one game at a time. “You can look too far down the line,” said Gary Cahill, who could come into the defence. England have made that mistake before, plotting paths to glory without showing the competence to get remotely close to the final.

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While Belgium players such as Toby Alderweireld and Thibaut Courtois have echoed their England counterparts by talking of the importance of pride and winning, their manager is taking another approach. He is taking two games at a time. “We’re preparing for two,” Roberto Martinez said. Preparations could entail swapping all 10 outfield players, though that would at least entail giving first starts of the tournament to the fit-again defenders Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany.

Martinez has said it would be “very unprofessional” to pick Thomas Meunier, Jan Vertonghen and Kevin de Bruyne, who are all a booking away from a ban. Yet cards are part of the subplot. England only lead Belgium in the table on fair play. A flurry of cautions in a draw could change that. Fifa have warned that anyone deliberately booked can be banned.

Rewind 28 years and Gascoigne was booked against Belgium, a caution with huge consequences when he collected another against Germany in the semi-final. But everything was important when England and Belgium last met in the World Cup. As they reconvene, it is odd to wonder what matters most now.

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