Saint Petersburg (AFP) – England and Belgium are perhaps better connected than any two countries at the World Cup because of the sheer number of players with Premier League experience but for defender Gary Cahill the link is not a happy one.
Cahill, who could start in Thursday’s first-against-second clash in Group G, was pushed in the back by Belgian winger Dries Mertens during England’s final friendly before Euro 2012.
Launched into the shoulder of goalkeeper Joe Hart, Cahill broke his jaw and was ruled out of the tournament.
Six years later, in March, Cahill was on holiday in Dubai after being left out of Gareth Southgate’s England squad, and he bumped into Mertens in a restaurant.
“He took the time out to come over and apologise for that, which for me was dead and buried, and I actually respected him a hell of a lot for doing that,” Cahill said.
“Obviously I was literally going on the plane, that was a huge time for me, I felt like I was in condition to start at that tournament. I felt the age I was at, the form I was in, I felt I would’ve played. It was a huge blow.”
Only six of Belgium’s 23-man squad have not played in England’s Premier League but if the teams are holding back in Kaliningrad it will not be out of politeness.
The winner of the match, and therefore the group, is likely to face a tougher path through the knockout stages, with Germany or Brazil potentially waiting in the quarter-finals.
“The discussions have been to go and win the game and that’s the truth,” Cahill said.
“You can’t look too far ahead. We were looking in the Euros (in 2016) at playing France in the stadium and it was going to be a fantastic occasion, and then it never got to that. You can look too far down the line.”
– Southgate to rotate? –
England were beaten by Iceland in the last 16 but their momentum was arguably lost the game before, in a goalless draw with Slovakia, when coach Roy Hodgson made six changes to a side that had just snatched a last-minute win over Wales.
Gareth Southgate must now decide whether to rotate his own side, and by how much.
“Both teams are going to make changes,” Cahill said. “They are carrying a few knocks but it doesn’t matter. Who’s going to come in? (Moussa) Dembele? Who for me is one of the best midfielders in our league.”