The vagaries of the group stage format at a Fifa World Cup were laid bare in the final round of fixtures as England’s reserves laboured to a 1-0 defeat against Belgium, safe in the knowledge that finishing second in Group G probably opens up a better route to the final.
The result, at the end of largely dull match — one which pre-tournament had been hailed as the biggest game of the opening fortnight — came immediately after Japan walked through the last 12 minutes of their game against Poland in Group H.
The Japanese, realising they were through to the next round courtesy of a better disciplinary record than Senegal, duly ensured they didn’t make a tackle, just in case, even though they were losing 1-0.
Similarly in Kaliningrad, where thousands of England fans had spent big money to support their team in what they thought would be the group decider, much of the match was played at half pace — even after Adnan Januzaj scored a wonderful second-half goal to put Belgium ahead.
The result means Belgium finish top of Group G and play Japan in Rostov in the last 16 on Monday. But the good news for Roberto Martinez stops there; because the route to Moscow after that could see them face Brazil in the quarter-finals and then France in the last four if they want to reach the final.
England, by contrast, take on Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday, safe in the knowledge that if they get through then Sweden or Switzerland await in the quarter-final — and possibly Croatia or Spain in the semis. So you can see why not all England fans were desperate for their side to win in Kaliningrad and why some on Twitter even admitted they silently cheered when Belgium scored.
It’s difficult to think what Fifa can do about the problem. They have already moved the final round of group stage fixtures to kick off at the same time to avoid the kind of situation seen in 1982 when Germany and Austria famously walked through a game in Gijon knowing that a 1-0 or 2-0 result would send both sides through.
Anybody who watched the last 10 minutes of Japan against Poland knows exactly what that that feels like; and they must have thought the game had continued in Kaliningrad — it was that bad in the first half.
Neither side had any real will to attack, both teams had made umpteen changes and it’s hard not to conclude that neither were particularly interested in winning it. Especially when Belgium coach Roberto Martinez admitted before kick-off that “the priority was not to win”.
Belgium had one or two half-chances early on, mainly thanks to a lack of concentration in the England defence, and both sides passed the ball square and backwards on so many occasions that half the stadium was falling asleep. Certainly, nobody needed reminding at half-time that the score was still 0-0.
If that was all part of the plan for Belgium, however, they ruined their tactics by scoring a wonderful goal in the 51st minute when Januzaj’s beautifully struck left-foot shot from the right-hand side of the area flew into he top corner of the net and left Jordan Pickford helpless.
What a moment for the former Manchester United star who never really fulfilled his potential at Old Trafford but who has blossomed at Real Sociedad.
The question now was how England would react; but the fact they continued to sit back, seemingly content enough with the result, added to the feeling that the incentive to win here wasn’t great.
Marcus Rashford had an excellent opportunity to equalise when put clean through by Jamie Vardy but his carefully-placed shot was just tipped around the post by Thibaut Courtois. Cue sighs of despair — or was it relief — among the England ranks.
Belgium had a late chance to double their score, substitute Mertens denied by Pickford, but let’s be honest nobody left the pitch in tears and nobody celebrated too wildly either. And the real measure of England’s interest in winning this match was that they didn’t field captain Harry Kane — and didn’t bring him on when they were losing.
England boss Gareth Southgate said: “This was a game we wanted to win but the knockout game is the biggest game for a decade so needed to make sure our key players were reserved.
“The players tonight gave everything. We have seen the level everyone has been playing at, we need to keep improving.
“We kept pressing until the end. We want to win football matches so we’re not happy to come away being beaten. But I think the supporters understand what the most important thing is.”
They do, of course, but after such a wonderful start to this World Cup this match, and the attitude shown by Japan earlier in the evening, tainted it just a little. Thank goodness the knockout matches are on their way.
England: Pickford, Jones, Stones (Maguire 45), Cahill, Dier, Alexander-Arnold (Welbeck 79, Loftus-Cheek, Delph, Rose, Vardy, Rashford.
Belgium: Courtois, Dendoncker, Boyata, Vermaelen (Kompany 74), Chaldi, Tielemans, Dembele, Hazard, Januzaj (Mertens 85) , Fellaini, Batshuayi.
Referee: Damir Skomina