England fielded a second-string side and struggled in a 1-0 defeat to Belgium but go through to the last 16 of the World Cup where they will play Colombia.
With England having already qualified for the knock-out stages of the World Cup, pre-match debate raged over whether to go for the win and maintain momentum, or play for second-place and so avoid a potential quarter-final clash with Brazil. Gareth Southgate seemingly opted for the latter, making eight changes to the side that thrashed Panama 6-1.
Few would have given a second-string side shorn of Kane, Sterling and Lingard in attack, Henderson in midfield, and Trippier, Walker and Maguire in defence much of a chance against Belgium if it wasn’t for the fact that Martinez’ starting eleven too was unrecognisable, the Spaniard having made 10 changes to the side that beat Panama 5-0, and leaving out stars of the calibre of Hazard, De Bruyne, Mertens and Lukaku.
It was Belgium who began the more brightly, quickly establishing their passing game and controlling possession. With Dembele and Fellaini paying close attention to Delph and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield, England’s creativity was nullified, leaving Tielemans to dictate play from deep, and it was the Belgium playmaker who would carve out the first chance of the game, collecting the ball in midfield and surging forward before unleashing a swerving shot that had Pickford at full-stretch to prevent it dipping under the crossbar.
Alarm bells were soon ringing again, this time following a shot by Batshuayi that looked to be going in before Cahill’s outstretched foot deflected it behind for a corner. England were caught napping and Fellaini was given ample time to chest the ball down and drill a shot low towards Pickford, who could only fumble the ball before it was hacked away to safety.
England were struggling to find an outlet and for much of the half were reduced to hopeful balls over the Belgium defence in an effort to capitalise on the pace of Rashford and Vardy. With only three shots at goal to Belgium’s ten, and none on target, England’s best chances were coming from set-pieces and, on 15 minutes, a 30-yard effort from Rashford was deflected out for a corner. Alexander-Arnold’s cross to the far-post found Cahill muscling his way over a trio of defenders, but his header went narrowly wide. Then, on 32 minutes, another good chance from a corner went begging, when Ruben Loftus-Cheek, in plenty of space having evaded his marker, headed wide at the far-post.
While England would carve out the first chance of the second-half, it was Belgium who took a 50th minute lead, Adnan Januzaj receiving the ball in the penalty area and deceiving Danny Rose with a body swerve before coming back onto his left-foot and curling an unstoppable shot into the top left-hand corner of the goal and beyond Pickford’s full-length dive.
Belgium would control much of the rest of the half but England should have equalised when Vardy, receiving the ball in acres of space in midfield, prodded a defence-splitting pass through to Rashford. The young Manchester United striker found himself one-on-one with Courtois, but the Belgian goalkeeper somehow got fingertips to his curling effort, pushing it around the far-post for a corner.
The post-match debate will centre on the wisdom of Southgate’s tactics. Should England have fielded a full-strength side and aimed to maintain momentum by beating Belgium, or was the right choice made in resting the first-team? By finishing second, England have avoided the so-called harder half of the draw and will have a fresher squad to draw on, but negative thoughts will have been planted. We must wait and see if Southgate’s decision helps England overcome Colombia and, if they manage that, whether Switzerland or Sweden in the quarter-finals prove ‘easier’ foes.