Belgium beat England 1-0 thanks to Adnan Januzaj’s superb goal, but are the Group G winners worse off for their victory?
In the final group stage game of this World Cup, England and Belgium faced the bizarre prospect of competing in a match where it was arguably better to lose than to win.
“We want to perform well but the priority is not to win,” even Belgium manager Roberto Martinez admitted in the build up to the match.
That was because the team which finished second of Group G would have probably a more difficult match against Colombia in the last 16, but would then face either Sweden or Switzerland in the quarterfinals.
Belgium will now meet Japan in the last 16, but if they win that match will then face the winners of the game between Brazil and Mexico in the last eight.
Given England has only won two knockout games in 28 years at the World Cup, the team’s coach Gareth Southgate had insisted the idea of plotting a route all the way to the semifinals seemed quite farfetched.
However both Martinez and Southgate fielded vastly different starting XIs to their previous matches, with Belgium making nine changes and England eight.
Despite all the personnel changes, neither side appeared disjointed and were attacking with freedom and the idea of finishing second in the group seemed preposterous.
Youri Tielemans had the first effort of the game inside five minutes, hitting a dipping shot towards goal which forced Jordan Pickford into his first save of the tournament.
Another sweeping Belgium attacked ended with Marouane Fellaini nodding down Tielemans’ cross for Michy Batshuayi, but Gary Cahill appeared with a last-ditch challenge to clear the ball off the line.
Tielemens picked up the first booking of the match soon after, which would usually have meant very little but for the new fair play rules.
With these two sides level on points, goal difference, goals scored and head-to-head, whoever received the most yellow or red cards would finish second in the group.
After Leander Dendoncker picked up Belgium’s second yellow of the game for a cynical foul on Danny Rose, the Red Devils had a total of five yellow cards to England’s two, which had the game finished in draw would have meant Southgate’s team would top the group on the fair play rule
Batshuayi left red-faced
It was a stunning piece of individual skill from former Manchester United prospect Januzaj that broke the deadlock soon after the restart.
Cutting inside onto his favored left foot, he feinted past Rose with a shimmy and curled a shot past Pickford into the top corner.
While Januzaj’s goal was a thing of beauty, Batshuayi’s celebration in the aftermath of his teammate’s goal didn’t quite match the finesse of Belgium’s goalscorer.
Picking the ball out of the back of the net, Batshuayi attempted a celebratory punt into the crowd, but only managed to hit the post with his volley cannoning back to hit him square in the face.
Falling behind proved the catalyst for England’s most attacking spell of the game.
The Three Lions created their best chance of the game moments later, a fine, flowing move ended with Jamie Vardy threading a ball through to Marcus Rashford.
With just Thibault Courtois standing between the forward and what looked a certain goal, the Chelsea goalkeeper somehow got fingertips to the shot to tip it around the post.
In Group G’s dead rubber, Tunisia’s second half comeback denied Panama an historic win at their first World Cup.
Yassine Meriah’s own goal gave the Central American’s a first-half lead, before strikes from Fakhreddine Ben Youssef and Wahbi Khazri turned the tide to earn Tunisia their first points in Russia.