England manager Gareth Southgate hailed his side’s meeting with Colombia in the World Cup last 16 as their biggest match “for a decade” after losing to Belgium last night.
In a bizarre game, England made eight changes and Belgium nine as two B-teams contested first place in Group G, knowing that topping the group placed the victor in a far tougher half of the draw. Amid suggestions Belgium did not want to win, Adnan Januzaj’s second-half strike sealed victory and left England second.
While the result will hand England easier opponents from the quarter-finals onwards, it has also landed them a tough last-16 match against Colombia, four places below them in 16th in the Fifa rankings, in Moscow on Tuesday, rather than a tie against Japan, who Belgium will play
But, by finishing second, England have also avoided a side of the draw which includes Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. But Southgate said: “We want to win football matches, so we’re not happy to come away from here having been beaten.
“But what that means for the next round, we don’t really know. The knockout game is the biggest game for a decade, so we had to make sure our key players were preserved. We created openings to get something from the game, but we have to keep improving.”
Southgate made the bold decision to leave captain and tournament top scorer Harry Kane, who had scored five goals in the first two matches against Tunisia and Panama, on the bench and he did not bring the Spurs striker on.
Southgate wanted to rest his key players – Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli did not start either – and also keep the wider squad engaged in the tournament by giving them game time.
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez also left out his stars, including Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
Southgate denied the defeat had dented England’s momentum after their positive results in the previous two matches. He said: “We talked about momentum. Momentum shifts in games and I think we kept pressing right to the end.
“I think it was a pretty even game. I thought they had the better controlled possession, and the better chances in the first half. But we had a couple of good ones in the second. So it was a good test of us. We had half an eye on the knockout. Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy kept running. It didn’t happen for them tonight, but we don’t suffer for it.
“The players who’ve played tonight have given absolutely everything and never stopped. Everyone’s seen the level that we’ve been playing at and we’ve got to keep improving.”