England v Belgium: A preview of European Championship final next summer?
On Sunday England face Belgium in one of the headline clashes of the international break. The pressure is on both teams ahead of next summer’s European Championship. Can these two managers and their squads live up to the hype or will they crumble when push comes to shove? Pete Sharland takes a look.
England's manager Gareth Southgate (L) greets Belgium's coach Roberto Martinez before the UEFA Nations League group A2 football match between England and Belgium at Wembley stadium in north London on October 11, 2020.
When Belgium and England walk out at the wonderfully named King Power Stadion At Den Dreef there’s every chance that this could be the dress rehearsal for the final of next summer’s European Championship.
Check most bookmakers and these are the two favourites for the tournament, alongside world champions France. You can certainly understand why. These teams played out the third place play-off at the 2018 World Cup and England finished third in the inaugural Nations League. Gareth Southgate’s team boast a collection of the most exciting young players in Europe whilst at the other end of the spectrum it is time for Roberto Martinez’s Golden Generation to start delivering.
Neither team has been given a particularly taxing group in the Euros next year. There are plenty of potential opportunities to slip up but with two - sometimes three - teams progressing to the knockout stages it would be a huge surprise if either didn’t make it out of the group stage. If both teams win their group, or if they both finish second, the earliest they could meet would be the final.
England manager Gareth Southgate speaks to the press during the England press conference on November 16, 2019 in Pristina, Kosovo.
Image credit: Getty Images
For England and Southgate this is the next step on their journey together. Southgate’s team won over a nation in Russia two years ago but since then things have been a little inconsistent. There are plenty of examples of young English players lighting up the Premier League - and Bundesliga - but the results at international level haven’t quite matched those performances. The end of 2019 saw three demolition jobs, scoring 17 against Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kosovo without conceding, but 2020 hasn’t hit those levels. The 1-0 victory over Iceland was fortuitous whilst they couldn’t find a way past Denmark over two matches. That’s why they find themselves third despite beating Belgium at Wembley in October.
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That defeat was Belgium’s first since a 5-2 hammering by Switzerland at the back end of 2018. Belgium have the feel of a more consistent team but that should hardly come as a surprise. Their best players are mostly 25 and up, they’re entering the prime of their careers. A lot of these England players may not reach their true prime until the 2026 World Cup let alone 2022. Belgium’s three star players; Thibaut Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard will be 29, 30 and 30 by the time the final of Euro 2020 takes place, this is their time. Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane will be 31, 28, 31 and 28 respectively. But there’s an argument to be made that Kane is the only guaranteed starter, this team is just on a different timeframe.
The problem for Southgate is that he might not be the one who gets to see the project through. Even though he’s only had one major tournament so far if he can’t get to the semi-finals next year then the vultures will be circling. The English FA and the team’s supporters are more than aware of how special this group can be. There’s a lot of goodwill towards Southgate but make no mistake, he’s under as much pressure as Martinez, even if the Belgium boss is in the last chance saloon.
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The fundamental issue at hand is what constitutes success at international level. Of course the standards are different across the board. Croatia reaching the latter stages of the World Cup is a remarkable achievement, but would it be enough for either Belgium or England next year? Are people putting either side in the ‘disappointments’ category if they get to the final and lose?
It sounds harsh but getting over the final hump is a real thing. It’s something that plagued teams like Spain and Portugal for generations. Even France in 2018 were under immense pressure after losing in the final of a home Euros two years prior. The added pressure of next year’s final being in Wembley shouldn’t be overlooked. England will look to get involved in whatever absurd ideas FIFA have for 2030, which will be the 100th anniversary of the World Cup, but this might be the last chance for a lot of these players to play in a home final for their country.
Winning is tough at any level of football, but it’s something that these two sides have only demonstrated up until a certain point. Next year’s finals will give them a chance to end the label of nearly men. They cannot afford to slip up to one of the pretenders. Losing to France, Germany or each other is understandable, every other side in Europe should be seen as a must win. Sunday’s game is just one step on a very strange and unique journey but it might give us a few clues as to where these teams are at, even several months out from the tournament.