'There is a great temptation to let England finish first'
To win, or not to win? Tug some jersey, or avoid yellow cards? England and Belgium face a World Cup conundrum ahead of Thursday's crunch in Kaliningrad -- is it better to finish second rather than win Group G?
Coaches Gareth Southgate and Roberto Martinez play down such talk. Yet a troubled start for Germany means the Group G winner risks coming across either the defending champions or a feared Brazil earlier in the knockout rounds. England and Belgium will have a better idea of future opponents after Wednesday's games.
Since England's 6-1 defeat of Panama on Sunday, both 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.
If that too were tied, a FIFA official would draw lots.
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 taking in Rostov-on-Don, Kazan and St. Petersburg.
England coach Southgate is unsure winning is an advantage: "We've 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 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 stutters to win Group E -- are now more likely to stand in the way of whoever tops Group G.
Belgium's Martinez insisted he was giving no thought to the issue. And he warned: "Football has got a strange knack of punishing you when you don't treat things professionally."
That was a sentiment echoed in the English press: "Always dangerous to try and finish second as you think passage might be easier," wrote the Daily Mirror's John Cross.
"Come unstuck, then you open yourself up to criticism."
Matt Dickinson of The Times speculated on Twitter: "So England play for a draw v Belgium, then pick up two sneaky bookings in the last 5 mins to make sure they finish second and avoid Brazil/Germany QF. Not Southgate's style."
But in Brussels' Le Soir, Frederic Larsimont said the Belgians, keen to improve on a 2014 quarter-final exit, had been considering how to avoid meeting Brazil at that stage: "There is," he said, "A great temptation to let England finish first."