Russia 2018 World Cup watch: Belgium victory leads to quandary for England as Colombia loom - but in the weaker half of the knock-out phase
PUBLISHED: 06:57 29 June 2018 | UPDATED: 17:29 29 June 2018
England lost to Belgium on Thursday evening in their final Group G match. Read Layth Yousif's take in our latest World Cup blog.
Adnan Januzaj scored a spectacular winner to earn Belgium first place and a last 16 tie against Japan.
The result means England finish runnners-up in the group and face Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday.
Boss Gareth Southgate made eight changes from the side that thrashed Panama 6-1, while former Everton manager Roberto Martinez brought in nine different players from his side’s victory over Tunisia in their last game – with only Thibaut Courtois and Dedryck Boyata keeping their places.
Southgate admitted after the game his team selection was influenced by his side already having qualified for the second round – which was reflected in Harry Kane being rested while Spurs clubmate Eric Dier was made England captain for the evening in Kaliningrad.
Marcus Rashford and Danny Welbeck went close but it was Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils that progress to the more favourable knock-out clash – on paper at least.
But that’s where the debate really starts.
Southgate conceded the Colombia match is now the country’s ‘biggest game in a decade’ insisting it was important key players were rested and refreshed for the battle ahead. He also said England fans would understand.
Yes and no.
As someone who has actually seen England win a World Cup second round match in the flesh – in Niigata in Japan when Sven Goran Erikson’s Three Lions beat Denmark 3-0, 16 long years ago – you don’t need to tell me how important this game is. And how difficult it will be to claim victory.
And yes, you’re asking for trouble if you start gazing into the future and forget the immediate task ahead. That’s why footballers always say they’re only looking towards the next game and nothing else.
It might be a truism but that’s because it’s absolutely true. Take your eye off the ball – literally in some cases – and you’ll be crashing out of a tournament quicker than you can say Roy Hodgson.
Yes, Southgate has attracted criticism because he rested so many players with the intent to finish runners-up in the group and progress to the weaker side of the knockout draw.
With a clash between Brazil or Mexico waiting in the last eight for Belgium – or Japan, who qualified in runners-up spot despite losing to Poland at the expense of Senegal after receiving two fewer yellow cards in the group stages – the path ahead looks a tricky one for Martinez.
However, if England were to beat Colombia – who despite being ranked 16th in the world, have injury worries after James Rodriguez was substituted in the first half during the 1-0 victory over Senegal with his boss Jose Peckerman ‘worried’ about his fitness – they would then face either Sweden or Switzerland.
Gazing further ahead Southgate’s men would then line up in the semi-final of the World Cup against either Denmark, Croatia, Russia or a misfiring Spain.
As opposed to the choice of Argentina, France, Portugal or Uruguay.
I know which route I’d rather choose.
By coming second in the group England, if victorious, will have a far less demanding travel schedule as they will play in Moscow for three of the four matches required to reach the final – rather than the long-distances Belgium could be required to fly including Rostov on Monday, with possibly Kazan then St Petersburg to come should they contiune winning.
The other positive for England is that they get an extra rest day – which allied with the first XI essentially having a night off against Belgium should mean they are fit and firing to go against the South Americans next week.
It was instructive Southgate, speaking after the Belgium defeat, also added ‘sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture’.
He was right.
If England can manage to beat a dangerous Colombian side then a route to the final opens up.
If they can contain the only non-European side in the draw – whose only decent performance so far came during their 3-0 victory over Poland – a side containing such talent as Juan Guillermo Cuadrado on the right wide, Radamel Falcao a predatory centre-forward, River Plate’s left-footed magician Juan Fernando Quintero and possibly Rodriguez – then the road to Moscow and the final on July 15 – beckons.
However, tt won’t be easy, it is a World Cup after all – and a defeat against Peckerman’s side will see all hell will break loose during the subsequent inquest – which will be painful and unforgiving.
Who’d be a World Cup manager eh?
Follow Layth on Twitter @laythy29