LONDON — Harry Kane will treat his Tottenham teammates to a meal out this week to thank them for their part in his annus mirabilis but, for two among them, Kane’s record-breaking year is both a cause for celebration and a nagging concern. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, the Belgium centre-backs, will be tasked with stopping the most potent striker in Europe when they meet Kane and England at the World Cup in Kaliningrad on June 28.
Kane is one of six Spurs players expected to be in England’s squad next summer — Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Harry Winks and Dele Alli are the other contenders — and long before they were paired with Belgium in the group stage, the back-and-forth had begun at Hotspur Way, the club’s Enfield training base.
Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Mousa Dembele have tried to scare the English contingent with reminders about the strength of Belgium’s “Golden Generation,” name-dropping Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens.
Alli and Dier, who tend to take the bait, can now respond that England boast the forward who outscored everyone else in elite football, even Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, in 2017. The jibes, though, have taken on a new edge of caution since the Dec. 11 draw, which Vertonghen watched with Dier.
“We live close together in London. It was a Friday afternoon and I invited him over,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. “We never spoke about being in the same group. That would’ve been very strange. Actually I was very excited. I told the guys I would prefer not to play in the group stage against England. We know each other so well.
“Before we were paired together, we were talking [about the World Cup]. We are always giving the guys a bit of stick, saying, ‘We’re better’ or ‘We’ve got this guy and that guy.’
“So Eric and Dele came back to me saying, ‘Yeah but we’ve got this guy!’ [Now] everyone is very careful. Whoever tries the banter will get it back in preseason if they lose. No one has a big mouth [anymore] because everyone is scared of getting stick in preseason!”
In England’s case, “this guy” is Kane, who barring injury will lead the line for Gareth Southgate’s side in Russia, where he will be aiming to make 2018 even more memorable than this year. It is no wonder that Vertonghen, Belgium’s most-capped player ever, greeted the draw with a wail of “Oh my god, nooooo,” as Dier punched the air.
England and Belgium will also play Tunisia and Panama before they meet in the final group game and Vertonghen is hopeful that both will have qualified, leaving the game more a matter of pride than World Cup survival and allowing Kane, who he rates as “up there with the proper best strikers in the world,” a rest.
In all likelihood, however, there will be something on the line and the match could hinge on which Spurs duo has an edge over familiar foes: Vertonghen or Alderweireld, or Kane and Alli, who is expected to play behind his club-mate in Southgate’s preferred 3-4-2-1 formation.
Vertonghen, who has always coped impressively with his international teammate Romelu Lukaku in the Premier League, believes the advantage is firmly with himself and Alderweireld.
“Because we know how they play,” he explained. “Of course, it’s the same for them but I think, from experience, the advantage is with the defenders. Of course, if Harry scores three times in July, I’ll kick myself!
“As far as predicting opponents, it’s hard. Especially with Harry and Dele. They control so many aspects of the modern game. Harry can do everything. He scores from crosses, he creates his own chances, he can get in behind. He knows my strengths and weakness. And it’s the same for Toby. We’ll see! I face Harry in training so I know how good he is.”
The connection between Belgium — who are managed by former Premier League duo Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry — and England goes way beyond Tottenham, though, and Vertonghen says everyone in the squad knows one or two players from their future opponents.
The 30-year-old is a firm believer that Southgate should build his team around the Spurs contingent and try to benefit from the strong philosophy established by his club manager Mauricio Pochettino.
“It’s going to be a very special game for so many players. We have 12 or 13 players with Belgium who play in the Premier League and everyone knows a couple of English players. It will be a great game to watch,” Vertonghen said. “We have seen how important the Tottenham players are for England’s philosophy. Obviously England have their own philosophy but they can benefit from that philosophy [at Tottenham].
“I can only speak for the guys from Tottenham — they have so much quality. They’re so positive. I think they can be very important for England. I see England as a great squad with all sorts of great qualities and players but I think the Tottenham players can be the heart of the next generation of England players.”
As it stands, Southgate is likely to take Vertonghen’s advice — Rose, Dier, Alli and Kane are near certain to start in Russia — and that could be bad news for Belgium if Kane continues his form into the New Year.
Dan is ESPN FC’s Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.