FULL TIME: England 0-1 Belgium And that’s that! Adnan Januzaj’s excellent goal has decided Group G! Belgium top it, and will face Japan on Monday in the second round, with either Brazil or Mexico waiting in the quarters if they make it.
Perhaps, trying to be optimistic, it might work out better this way, after all. Maybe England will be grateful later in this tournament that they have avoided the possibility of a quarter-final against Brazil. And, without wishing to getting too far ahead, perhaps this defeat will not jar quite so much if England can find themselves in a position where it is Sweden or Switzerland trying to prevent them reaching the semi-finals rather than, in theory, the five-time world champions.
Alternatively, it might just be that England come to regret the night Gareth Southgate chose to field a vastly changed line-up – a vastly weakened one, too, on this evidence – when the reward for holding on to their place at the top of Group G would have been a tie against Japan in the first round of knockout matches.
Instead, England fell flat on a strangely subdued evening. It was a calculated gamble from Southgate and Adnan Januzaj’s winner, six minutes into the second half, means Colombia will provide the opposition next Tuesday, whereas Belgium get the plum tie against Japan the previous night. Japan, to put it into context, are currently 61st in Fifa’s world rankings, just above Honduras, Finland, Mali and Cape Verde Islands, yet six places worse off than the Panama side England have already walloped for six. Colombia represent a much greater challenge and there are bound to be questions about Southgate’s thinking if that game, to be played in Moscow, goes badly.
Southgate plainly felt it was a risk worth taking, making eight changes in total and holding back Harry Kane for the entire night. Roberto Martínez had put out a form of Belgium-Lite, meaning the game went ahead with Thorsten Hazard rather than his brother Eden, running at Phil Jones. Kevin De Bruyne’s absence, among nine changes, further diminished Belgium’s powers. It was a shame in many ways that the outstanding fixture of the group should be deprived of so many elite players. Hypothetical, perhaps, but it might have been much better fun if this fixture had been arranged as the first or second match, rather than with both teams already qualified.
Instead this was Southgate’s supporting cast apart from the presence of Jordan Pickford in goal and John Stones in the centre of defence and, though Ruben Loftus-Cheek also kept his place, it was difficult not think that was to give the fit-again Dele Alli more recovery time for next week.
Nobody could say the two teams had been instructed to forego their competitive instincts and, early on, Belgium’s players could still be seen trying to convince the referee that the ball might have crossed the goal-line line after Gary Cahill got back to save Pickford from an embarrassing mistake.
Equally, there were other times when whistles could be heard from the crowd. This had once been such an attractive fixture but it was just inevitable, with both teams experimenting the way they were, that something was lost. The tempo had changed. England had played with so much raw energy in their first two games. Belgium had, too. But not here.
The tell-tale sign was when the first Mexican wave snaked round the stadium. On and on it went until it reached the end decorated in St George’s flags and, as always, died out immediately. Another one started and the same again. It made for an interesting spectacle – the people throwing their arms in the air versus the saboteurs – but this was midway through the first half and didn’t say an awful lot for the match. An enthralled crowd doesn’t usually have to make its own entertainment.
The first half was a stinker in which England barely created a noteworthy chance. Marcus Rashford flickered only sporadically. Jamie Vardy found it difficult to make any kind of favourable impression and England’s newly installed wing-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Danny Rose, seemed reluctant to venture too far forward.
Rose, in particular, had a poor evening because he will have to accept a sizeable degree of the culpability for Belgium’s goal. Januzaj deserves a lot of credit on the basis it was a splendid strike from the former Manchester United player once he had twisted past Rose with a little shimmy, a drag-back and a change of body direction.
From an England perspective, however, Rose was beaten too easily and it was a flat-footed attempt to stop the danger. Januzaj was coming in from the right and, once he had gone past his nearest opponent, he let fly from just inside the penalty area and beat Pickford with a diagonal, rising shot despite the goalkeeper getting his fingers to the ball.
Finally, there was a sense of urgency from England’s players. Yet when Southgate made his first attacking substitution it was Danny Welbeck who came on rather than Kane, the player currently top of the Golden Boot scoring chart. Rashford had England’s best chance of the night when Vardy sent him running clear through the middle. An equaliser would have changed everything but Rashford could not beat Thibaut Courtois and we will know next Tuesday whether the ramifications are serious.
Source: The Guardian