DEDOVSK, Russia (Reuters) - Belgium’s World Cup clash against England on Thursday could feel like a Tottenham training ground for players on both sides but defender Jan Vertonghen insists there will be no joking around.
For he and Spurs club mate Toby Alderweireld on the other side of the Belgium backline, trying to stop friend and striker Harry Kane will feel “weird”, said Vertonghen, who was relieved that with both sides sure to progress, the stakes were not high.
“It’s going to be very weird to play against him, to play against all of them, in a way, it’s going to be funny,” he told reporters at Belgium’s training camp outside Moscow.
There have been phone calls between the rival camps in Group G, said Vertonghen, Belgium’s most capped player.
Half the Belgian squad play in the English Premier League, three of them at Tottenham alongside five of the English squad and two each at Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs, City and United.
That did not mean they were not taking the game seriously.
“We know we can lose, they know they can lose, so you don’t want to fall flat on your face by making a joke of it,” said Vertonghen.
At the same time, conversations between the sides featured a shared sense of relief that neither needs a result.
“Just imagine England needed points and we won — that’s a difficult situation to be in. Now it is easier to make jokes because the final score matters less,” Vertonghen said.
England captain Kane is top scorer at the tournament with five goals.
Vertonghen rated him one of the world’s best strikers but said Belgium had defenders who could cope with him.
“I’m happy for him he’s doing well,” he said. “Hopefully not that well on Thursday.”
Vertonghen said most of the Belgian players had not seen England’s 6-1 demolition of Tunisia but they were mindful that six of England’s eight goals in the tournament had come from set pieces.
Comparing Kane to Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, Vertonghen said both had huge ambition. But while Kane was a classic “target man”, Lukaku was a creator: “Just kick the ball up front and he’ll make something of it,” he said.
With commentators on both sides speculating about the benefits of coming second in Group G to avoid Brazil or Germany later, Vertonghen dismissed the idea: “I’ve never been on the pitch trying to lose,” he said. “We’re going to try to win.”
Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Editing by Ian Ransom