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England prepared for one last push to claim third place against Belgium

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/07/2018 Dominic Fifield in Moscow
a man wearing a blue shirt: Gareth Southgate admitted he had watched a recording of the Croatia game again in the early hours of Friday morning. © Provided by Guardian News Gareth Southgate admitted he had watched a recording of the Croatia game again in the early hours of Friday morning.

Three days on the sense of regret is just as raw. Gareth Southgate has done all he can to re-energise his England squad for the third-place play-off, such a cruel commitment in the context of what might have been, but he still found himself squinting at his laptop in the small hours of Friday morning, poring over yet another re‑run of the defeat by Croatia, wincing through that period in the second half when, for the first time in Russia, his side appeared to panic and their style slipped. Cursing Ivan Perisic’s “bizarre” volley and the spasm of indecision which gripped his team’s backline to shatter a dream.

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The manager has attempted to retain a modicum of perspective. His painful memories of Euro 96 have never really dimmed, though that semi‑final defeat by Germany 22 years ago was endured by a team he acknowledges now were far closer to the finished article. Many of their number knew their chance came and went that night, whereas the buzzwords accompanying the current crop revolve around youthful energy, long-term vision and this being the start of something special. “But we were still 20 minutes from a World Cup final, and then, in extra time, 10 minutes from a shootout to get to a World Cup final,” he said. “That is going to live with me forever, no doubt about that.

(COMBO) This combination of photos created on July 12, 2018 shows Belgium's forward Eden Hazard in Moscow on June 23, 2018 (L) and England's forward Harry Kane in Nizhny Novgorod on June 24, 2018. - Belgium will play England in their Russia 2018 World Cup play-off for third place football match at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on July 14, 2018. (Photo by Francisco LEONG and Martin BERNETTI / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG,MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty (COMBO) This combination of photos created on July 12, 2018 shows Belgium's forward Eden Hazard in Moscow on June 23, 2018 (L) and England's forward Harry Kane in Nizhny Novgorod on June 24, 2018. - Belgium will play England in their Russia 2018 World Cup play-off for third place football match at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on July 14, 2018. (Photo by Francisco LEONG and Martin BERNETTI / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG,MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

“I’m old enough to know I don’t have to beat myself up unnecessarily. When I was a player I had a very simplistic mind-set: win I was good, lose and I was an idiot, nothing in between. I bizarrely felt the need to punish myself for that. I’m a lot more rational now. I can see what we have achieved, though when you are so close you look back at what we might have done. I’m conscious I’ve had to try to raise everybody. But, that all said, I’m still up watching the game again at four o’clock this morning.”

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It will have pained him just as much on the third, fourth or fifth viewing. The past few days have demanded a different kind of management. Southgate’s body clock was always likely to have been scrambled at this point, whether by the white nights of Repino – there is a hint of darkness now with midsummer passed – or that flurry of post-match flights shuttling the squad back to the Gulf of Finland. They touched down at 6.30am after the agony at the Luzhniki Stadium. But there is one more fixture to play, one last chance to showcase progress, and there has been precious little time in which to prepare.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 12 : Thorgan Hazard midfielder of Belgium and Yannick Carrasco forward of Belgium leading the running exercise during a training session as part of the preparation prior to the FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia Play-off for third place match between Belgium and England at the Guchkova Sports center in Dedovsk on July 12, 2018 in Moscow, Russia, 12/07/2018 ( Photo by Nico Vereecken / Photonews
 via Getty Images) © Getty MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 12 : Thorgan Hazard midfielder of Belgium and Yannick Carrasco forward of Belgium leading the running exercise during a training session as part of the preparation prior to the FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia Play-off for third place match between Belgium and England at the Guchkova Sports center in Dedovsk on July 12, 2018 in Moscow, Russia, 12/07/2018 ( Photo by Nico Vereecken / Photonews via Getty Images)

The manager had called a meeting of staff and players in the gym at the ForRestMix Club on Thursday afternoon with all 58 of the travelling party in the room and the captain, and prospective Golden Boot winner, Harry Kane perched on one of the barbells. The message had been about ending on a high, beating Belgium at St Petersburg Stadium on Saturday to secure the second-best finish in the nation’s history and claim a bronze medal as tangible reward of sorts for exceeding expectations.

All 23 players trained day to suggest a focus remains, even if the selection will be much altered. Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard have been ill. Kieran Trippier and Jordan Henderson are carrying injuries. Kane, desperate to start, looked jaded in Moscow. Those who replace them will be fresher, eager to make their own mark. Yet the sense of anticlimax will be no less numbing for them.

In Pictures: Picking the Likely Belgium XI to Face England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff on Saturday (Provided by 90 min)

In their 2-1 quarter-final win over Brazil, Belgium produced a masterclass in the arts of defending and counterattacking. Yet it would have counted for nothing if it hadn't been for Thibaut Courtois' admirable goalkeeping. For all Belgium's excellence, Brazil still had enough chances and half-chances to win the match, but they simply couldn't get past Courtois, who made a string of fine saves and never looked like being beaten. Like England's Jordan Pickford, the Chelsea keeper didn't deserve to lose his semi-final. Picking the Likely Belgium XI to Face England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff on Saturday

Fabian Delph, as the only member of the squad to have travelled home, to attend the birth of his third child, will start and recounted the extremes of the past few weeks. “Everybody was screaming: ‘It’s coming home,’” he said of his four days in England. “On the school run even the teacher seemed to like me a bit more now, asking me to take shirts back to get signed. I’ve had kids coming up to me – the parents were kicking them [forward] – saying: ‘Go and get his autograph.’ We had a home birth and the midwife was asking for a picture. She told me it is coming home, too.

(COMBO) This combination of photos created on July 12, 2018 shows England's coach Gareth Southgate in Kaliningrad on June 28, 2018 (L) and Belgium's coach Roberto Martinez in Saint Petersburg on July 10, 2018. - Belgium will play England in their Russia 2018 World Cup play-off for third place football match at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on July 14, 2018. (Photo by Ozan KOSE and Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)        (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE,GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty (COMBO) This combination of photos created on July 12, 2018 shows England's coach Gareth Southgate in Kaliningrad on June 28, 2018 (L) and Belgium's coach Roberto Martinez in Saint Petersburg on July 10, 2018. - Belgium will play England in their Russia 2018 World Cup play-off for third place football match at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on July 14, 2018. (Photo by Ozan KOSE and Gabriel BOUYS / AFP) (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE,GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

“We are in a bubble. We don’t get to feel what it’s like outside so, honestly, the support I felt was phenomenal. The only downside was my oldest daughter, who was sad when we won in the quarters because she’d thought I was going to come home. It was cute, but also a bit: ‘Oh, yeah?’ I did think that we would go back as super-heroes, because I genuinely thought we were going to win the World Cup. So it was an awful feeling in that dressing room [at the Luzhniki]. ‘What have we done?’ There was quite a long silence, the manager spoke and said his piece, but in times like that you need to be left alone to come to terms with what’s happened. It’s so important we raise ourselves against Belgium and go home with a medal.”

Southgate pointed to the group game defeat by the same opposition as motivation, though that duel in Kaliningrad had been competed in by reserve teams. Belgium seem more intent on selecting a stronger lineup this time. Their golden generation will depart Russia saddled by a different kind of disappointment: they were contenders. Yet, regardless of day’s result, the England manager will encourage his squad and staff post-match to let their hair down on their last night back in Repino with the next stage of this team’s evolution sure to mean that, by the time the Uefa Nations League kicks off against Spain in September, there will have been changes to personnel.

England's Ruben Loftus-Cheek, left, and Belgium's Thorgan Hazard fight for the ball during the group G match between England and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kaliningrad Stadium in Kaliningrad, Russia, Thursday, June 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) © AP England's Ruben Loftus-Cheek, left, and Belgium's Thorgan Hazard fight for the ball during the group G match between England and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kaliningrad Stadium in Kaliningrad, Russia, Thursday, June 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

“That group of people will never be together again,” he said. “That’s why you’ve got to enjoy those moments. You have to balance everything with: where do I think this team is, realistically? We’ve got a huge amount out of this group of players, and they deserve massive credit. If I look at Pickford, Maguire, Trippier … they had a handful of caps each coming into the tournament, and they have all performed unbelievably well. As have so many others who don’t have huge experience.

“But the reality is players, staff ... things always change, for whatever reason. We never close our mind to people, and there are some younger players we’re excited about and who could get Premier League football this year and start to push. But they’ve got it all to do now. It should be harder to get into the group than it has been this time.”

Watch: Trippier trains ahead of Belgium match (Provided by Sky Sports)

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He will have to wait to switch off. Southgate and his players fly back to Birmingham on Sunday with the new Premier League campaign less than a month away and with a meeting pencilled in back at St George’s Park next week to plan for the September internationals. He also has letters to write to all those involved in Russia, a self-imposed task – “It’s quite nice to receive a letter in this day and age, and there’s something special about that” – thanking them for their efforts. The well-deserved holiday will have to wait a while longer and, even then, he admitted his thoughts will rarely deviate from football.

Belgium's Marouane Fellaini, left, and England's Eric Dier compete for the ball during the group G match between England and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kaliningrad Stadium in Kaliningrad, Russia, Thursday, June 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) © AP Belgium's Marouane Fellaini, left, and England's Eric Dier compete for the ball during the group G match between England and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kaliningrad Stadium in Kaliningrad, Russia, Thursday, June 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

At least he will be warmed by optimism over the future. Southgate likened the bond recovered between the England team and the nation to that forged between Germany and their support at the 2006 World Cup, where the youth of the side, and the enthusiasm whipped up by the tournament, propelled them back into the wider public’s hearts. “The downside of that was it took them another eight years to win [the World Cup],” he said through a smile, before playfully describing the prospect of playing games at Euro 2020 at ‘home’ at Wembley as “massive … is that helpful?”

“The players are going to experience a tournament as close to what we experienced in 1996 and 1966. That’s incredible for everybody. We saw what the Olympics were like in 2012. And, again, we’ll have the players inspired by what’s happened over the last few weeks. They can see the possible impact. We did talk to them about that before but it was hard for them to really get it. Most of them weren’t born in 1990 and they were too young for Euro 96. So they haven’t really felt what the nation really getting excited about the team feels like. They’ve seen that now. As have all the kids who are playing in junior teams. They can see if that’s what it’ll be like for the seniors that’s really exciting. But that’s for the future. We have to finish well.”

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