The game in the Kaliningrad Stadium on Thursday evening ended with Belgium winning 1-0. That result means the Red Devils topped Group G and will face Japan in the knockout stage, while England will take on Colombia, reports Xinhua news agency.
It had been speculated before the game that both teams may have wanted to avoid finishing top of the group, as the winner may face tricky ties against the likes of Brazil, France, Portugal or Argentina.
However, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez played down the notion that his team would have been happier to lose. “I don’t think in the World Cup you can be successful by trying to hope to get an easy path,” the 44-year-old said.
“What you should try is to create a group, with everyone desperate to contribute and perform for each other,” he added.
However, Martinez noted that his team was clear from the outset that “winning at all costs is not an option”, explaining his decision to make nine changes to Belgium’s starting lineup.
“We have to spread the responsibility in the group. We have to see who is ready. We have to see how well some players are recovering from injury,” he said.
The Spaniard said he was satisfied with his team’s performance. “The young players showed they are ready to contribute,” he said, reserving special praise for Youri Tielemans, 21, and 23-year-old Adnan Januzaj.
“Maybe we are a little bit slow in finding the route we need to penetrate. But I think that is normal when you make nine changes,” he added.
Gareth Southgate, coach of England, seemed to share Martinez’s safety-first approach. “We would have potentially risked players that we didn’t have to risk,” he said, adding that it would have been foolish to play top goalscorer Harry Kane and risk him being injured.
“The game was a really good test for us. We knew that the level of the game was going to be high, even with both teams making changes. Belgium had controlled possession. We found it difficult to press,” he said.
“But in terms of effectiveness and chances, we were probably fairly even. We had a couple of good chances and counterattacks. So I think we will learn a lot from the game. Tactically, it is a good game for us to review,” he added.
In response to a question from Xinhua, Southgate described his team as young, enthusiastic, energetic, and improving. “We are showing signs of being an exciting football team. Even tonight was a brilliant experience for people like Trent [Alexander-Arnold] and Ruben [Loftus-Cheek] to play in World Cup matches. They are 19, 21, but they both showed they were trying to make things happen,” he said.
“Belgium are [ranked] third in the world for a reason, because they have played together for a long time, and they had extremely experienced players even in the game tonight. So we still have some work to do, but we are pretty realistic about where we are,” the England coach noted.
Discussing the match against Colombia next week, Southgate said it would be a fantastic challenge, but a game that England were capable of winning.