Belgium may have topped their World Cup group after beating England in the final match but there’s a sense that England were the bigger winners.
The Belgians set up a World Cup last-16 meeting with Japan after Adnan Januzaj’s first international goal earned a 1-0 win against England in a bizarre Group G match.
With Brazil potentially awaiting in the quarter-finals for the group winners, there was speculation both teams would prefer to finish second to be paired with either Sweden or Switzerland in the last eight.
For the first 45 minutes, it looked as though neither side really wanted to win it, with both sides taking the opportunity to rest key players.
Belgium made nine changes from their previous group match and England eight and it was only really after halftime that the game came to life and both sides showed a real intent to win it.
Januzaj’s moment of magic was enough to secure maximum points for Belgium and their first win against England since 1936, the winger cutting in off the right flank to whip a delightful strike across Jordan Pickford.
Marcus Rashford had England’s best chance to reply, but Thibaut Courtois made a fine save to deny the Manchester United striker, who was deputising for rested Golden Boot leader Harry Kane.
England may look at the side of the draw they now find themselves on and think perhaps finishing second in the group was a better outcome than topping it.
However, the reality remains that in order to get to the quarter-final against either Sweden or Switzerland they must first get past Group H winners Colombia – what many experts would deem a far more daunting prospect than Japan.
As Germany have already found out rather painfully at this World Cup, no side should be underestimated or considered an easier proposition than another.
England suffered an early blow in the match after defender John Stones had to be replaced at the break – the centre-back now a doubt for the Three Lions’ second-round match against Colombia.
Jamie Vardy was gifted an early opportunity by sloppy defending, but Courtois saved with his right boot.
Pickford kept out a long-range drive from Youri Tielemans before the goalkeeper was rescued by Gary Cahill’s goal-line clearance after the ball squirmed out of his grasp.
Tielemans collected the game’s first booking and Trent Alexander-Arnold was next to produce a block on the line, although Pickford might well have saved the effort from Marouane Fellaini.
Leander Dendoncker was booked for bringing down a rampaging Danny Rose as England appeared to be edging towards top spot in the group by virtue of their better fair play record.
England were dealt a blow with Stones replaced at the break, the Manchester City defender appearing on the bench with an ice pack applied to his calf.
And Belgium took the lead in the 51st minute, Januzaj scoring a beauty to open his international account.
The former Manchester United man tied Rose in knots, cut inside and whipping a glorious finish out of Pickford’s reach, the goalkeeper beaten in his top-right corner.
Clever play from Vardy sent Rashford through on goal in the 66th minute, but the striker’s effort was a good height for Courtois to get a vital touch to turn the ball wide of the post.
While England will be concerned about Stones’ knock, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was able to bring Vincent Kompany off the bench for the last 16 minutes for the defender’s first action of the World Cup.
Rashford drilled a free-kick narrowly over the angle, but Belgium – who could have added a late second but for Pickford denying substitute Dries Mertens – held firm to win Group G.
Martinez’s men take on Japan on Monday with England facing Colombia the following day.
Key Opta stats:
– Belgium have now won their last seven World Cup first round group-stage games. They’d won just eight of their previous 24 at this stage of the competition.
– England had 11 shots in this match but failed to score. They also had 11 shots in their previous match against Panama, scoring six times.
– Danny Welbeck had just three touches in this match, with one of those being one of England’s two shots on target in the whole game.
– Belgium are just the third team to have a 100% win ratio at the 2018 World Cup, after Uruguay and Croatia.