England manager Gareth Southgate admitted that the World Cup third/fourth place playoff is a game no one wants to play in after his team lost 2-1 to Croatia in the semifinals in Russia.
The Three Lions had a dream start to their first semifinal since 1990, with Kieran Trippier netting from a free kick in the fifth minute. But a second-half goal from Ivan Perisic and an extra-time winner from Mario Mandzukic ended England’s dream of reaching the final and winning a second World Cup for their country.
Asked about Saturday’s match against Belgium, who beat England 1-0 in a somewhat meaningless group stage match on June 28, Southgate said: “The honest thing is it’s not a game any team wants to play in. We have two days to prepare. We will want to give a performance of huge pride, no question about that.
“Every time we wear the shirt of our national team, we want to play with pride and play well and win. It will be a really difficult task to assess everybody over the next 24 hours and get them mentally back to where we want them to be for a game like that, but that will be the challenge.
“We’ll be ready as a group to go again because the group have huge pride in their performances in the way they work. We have made such strides with our supporters and our public that we want to continue to do that.”
Southgate was reluctant to draw any positives from England’s World Cup experience so soon after the crushing loss to Croatia, but said there obviously were many high points and pointed to a bright future for his young, talented squad after their success in Russia.
Southgate said: “At the moment we all feel the pain of the defeat. Did we feel we would be in this position? Realistically, I don’t think any of us did. But when you get to this point and play as well as we did in the first half, you want to take those opportunities in life.
“The dressing room is a very difficult place at the moment. But I’m remarkably proud of a group of players who have really advanced. The reaction of the supporters at the end compared to two years ago tells them that experiences with England can be positive, that the country are very proud of what they’ve done and the way they’ve played, and there will in time be lots of positives to take.
“It’s hard to put that into context now, and a bit too soon. I think over the next few days it will be the time to reflect on that. It’s clear to everybody the progress that’s been made in terms of the level of performance and togetherness of the group. There are a lot of things that have been hugely positive for us. We’ve proved to ourselves and our country that is possible.”
The England boss was also asked if the team’s leading scorer Harry Kane had tired as the tournament progressed and was perhaps missing his cutting edge in the semifinals.
Southgate said he was unsure if that was the case, but that there was no questioning what the Tottenham striker had brought to the team both on and off the pitch in Russia.
“I’d need to look back again at it. He’s given absolutely everything for the team,” Southgate said. “There was a period of the game in the second half where we didn’t have that controlled possession, and the game became too end to end with us not building in the way we have been.
“Now is a time for us to be strong as a group and take the time to reflect on the performance a bit more over the next couple of days. He’s captained the team brilliantly throughout this tournament. I can’t ask more of him as a captain or as a man over the last three weeks.”