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Romelu Lukaku to miss England-Belgium match, while Harry Kane might start

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Both teams are hinting that they may rotate, but that rotation may not apply to the World Cup Golden Boot leader.

Belgium v Tunisia: Group G - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Depending on how you look at it, there’s good news for England coming out of the Belgium camp today. According to BBC, Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku has been ruled out of Thursday’s Group G deciding match against England with a minor ankle injury, meaning the Red Devils will rest him for the Round of 16.

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez said Lukaku had a scan which “brought us good news” but added the England game is “one day too early for him”.

”I don’t think it is going to take any longer than that,” said Martinez.

—BBC

This makes me chuckle a bit. He only misses the England game by one day? Shucks, that’s a shame, isn’t it? It’s a strong indication that Roberto Martinez plans to rotate his squad heavily for this match, resting his best players for the next round, since both England and Belgium have already clinched progression. Lukaku is in the hunt for the Golden Boot, but missing what’s supposedly the biggest match of the group with a minor ankle tweak seems more like an excuse than a problem.

Meanwhile, in England, various reports are suggesting that Harry Kane is going to play, and does not want to be rested at all. The Guardian is reporting that Kane is very likely to start against Belgium and while Gareth Southgate had previously suggested he would also rotate, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Kane is again leading the line when England takes the pitch tomorrow. Here’s Southgate when asked about Kane:

“As a manager you have to think of the whole squad and then your second thought is for individuals and their own situations, and that is a really complex balance in any business where you are managing people. But I am sure we can get that right.”

So why is this important? Because, cynically, it would theoretically be a much easier path to the World Cup semifinals for whichever team finishes SECOND. Take a look:

I don’t know about you, but I know which side of the bracket I’d rather be on. That’s no guarantee of success, of course, but it certainly gives an incentive for both England and Belgium to... let’s say “not play their very best” in this final match of group competition. Kim McCauley has already suggested it’d be in both teams’ interest to play for a draw and kick the crap out of each other.

There’s also an argument out there that suggests both teams should try and tank the match to ensure that they finish second. I don’t think either team will go that far, but it does appear that Belgium is content to rest some of their best guys and give a few fringe squad members an opportunity to play. If that means they end up finishing second in the group... oh well!

England seems willing to do that too, but that probably won’t apply to Kane. As we know from the end of last season, wild horses can’t keep him off the pitch when he’s motivated, even if he’s carrying an ankle injury or is out of form. I am not sure he cares that it might be better for England in the long run if he’s able to sit out one to maintain his sharpness — Kane’s got a legitimate chance to claim the World Cup Golden Boot and close the gap on Gary Lineker’s England World Cup goals record. He wants to win every game, and he’s England captain. It’s certainly endearing, if at times like this perhaps a little maddening.

Or, maybe Southgate doesn’t care about that kind of gamesmanship and wants to win the group no matter who they might face in the knock-out rounds. That’s also a reasonable position to take — to win the World Cup you have to beat the best, and if you don’t fear the best, there’s no reason to try and take the easier path.

It seems very likely that Southgate will recall Dele Alli to the starting lineup after he missed the match against Panama with a slightly strained thigh. Eric Dier will also be due for a start as he’s been a bit player in England’s first two games, as would Danny Rose.

The match kicks off at 2:00 p.m. ET (7 p.m. BST) on Thursday.