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FIFA World Cup 2018: Face-off between England and Belgium - even a loss will taste like victory
The group stages of FIFA World Cup 2018 being hosted by Russia will come to an end tonight and only 16 teams will remain to fight for the World Cup as the knock-outs begin from Saturday, June 30.

The teams that have qualified for the knock-outs are as expected. Uruguay and Russia from Group A, Spain and Portugal from Group B, France and Denmark from Group C, Croatia and Argentina from Group D (although many expected Argentina to top the group) and Brazil and Switzerland from Group E have made it to the next round.

However, Group F had a surprise in store. The 2014 defending champions Germany were eliminated in the group stages for the first time since 1938 after losing to South Korea 2-0. Sweden topped the group quite unexpectedly and Mexico joined them although they risked being eliminated had Germany won against South Korea.

Today two teams each from Group G and H will join others as mentioned above in the knock-outs.

Group H is interestingly poised as two non-European teams will qualify from this group. Poland has already been eliminated and the race is on between Japan, Colombia and Senegal. Japan takes on Poland while Colombia will face Senegal. While Colombia must win, a draw is sufficient for both Japan and Senegal to qualify.

Belgium and England are already through from Group G, but they are facing each other today to determine the group winner while the other match between Tunisia and Panama is inconsequential.

There is an interesting scenario in this group. What should both England and Belgium do? As group matches in other groups are already over, both these teams know about their likely opponents from Quarter Final onwards assuming that they would win their respective R16 matches. Germany's loss has given the coaches a strategic input which is as mentioned below:

The group winner will have an easy R16 opponent, but big teams will await them later starting from Brazil in the Quarter Finals and then either Argentina or France or Portugal or Uruguay in the Semi-finals. Group G runners up will also get an easier R16 opponent, but the road later is not that difficult as either Sweden or Switzerland will meet them in the Quarter Final followed by either Croatia or Spain or Russia or Denmark in the semi-finals.

If I were the coach of England or Belgium, I would have asked them to finish runners up to make the path to the final easier. One way of ensuring this is by losing the match intentionally, but I don't think any coach would do that. The next option is to draw the match, but finish runners up. The position in case of draw shall be decided by goal difference, lesser number of cards accumulated during group matches or by lottery in that order. Since the goal difference is same both for England and Belgium, the number of cards accumulated can be the deciding factor.

At present England have 2 and Belgium have 3 cards accumulated. No one likes a booking, so I don't think any team will be inclined to go for more bookings as the availability of players could be an issue later. So if the match ends in a draw with England getting one booking, then toss of coin will determine the group winner.

But one thing is for sure. The fans of England or Belgium will not be upset if their team finishes runners up in the group. In fact, they will thank God if that happens. They will taste victory even in a loss.

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