England and Belgium went into the final group stage match of the World Cup knowing that the winner would take the group, but the loser might end up in the easier half of the knock-out bracket.
That weird dynamic, combined with a whole lot of rotation — 17 changes between the two sides compared to their previous matches — made for a pretty epically dull match that neither team really seemed to want to win. Except for Adnan Januzaj! The Belgian attacking midfielder, late of Manchester United, now with Real Sociadad, scored a long-range blast in the second half and Belgium took the honors 1-0 in Kaliningrad.
That’s probably okay with England. By virtue of losing, they ended up with arguably a much easier path to the World Cup semi-finals. They will face their teammate Davinson Sanchez and Colombia in the next round; Belgium has a match-up with Japan and a possible quarterfinal clash with Brazil.
All of the World Cup Round of 16 matches are now set in stone!#WorldCup pic.twitter.com/fUoM02eUz0— World Soccer Talk (@worldsoccertalk) June 28, 2018
England started the match without many of the players who started in the first two matches. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Kieran Trippier all were moved to the bench, while Eric Dier captained the side, and Danny Rose started at left wingback. For Belgium, Mousa Dembele started the match, while Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld were both rested.
There’s not much to say about the match itself. Both teams were trying... kinda... but the match had the feel of an international friendly and not a World Cup clash between two teams who could make deep runs into the tournament. England had 12 shots but managed only one on target, and it’s hard to say that they were playing with anything close to a sense of urgency. Prior to the goal, fans on social media were counting Belgium’s accrued yellow cards, as it might have had an impact on the final standings had the game ended in a draw.
England manager Gareth Southgate’s true feelings about the final result were made plain when, down 1-0, he opted to bring on Danny Welbeck as a substitute instead of Kane. That indicated that he was perfectly content to finish second in Group G and take what looks like the easier path.
In fact, the most interesting part of the whole match came after the goal, when Belgium striker Michy Batshuayi celebrated by kicking the ball off both the post and his face.
BONK pic.twitter.com/RJ1iwTJC1n— Deadspin (@Deadspin) June 28, 2018
Thankfully, he had a good humor about the whole thing, in a particularly Michy-esque way.
Ahahha I knew I would be f*cked the minute I come to my mentions why am I so stupid bro ♂️ shit hurts— Michy Batshuayi (@mbatshuayi) June 28, 2018
England’s Tottenham players will now face another teammate — Davinson Sanchez and Colombia, who squeaked into the knockout rounds after a thrilling day of Group H action that saw them progress alongside Japan at the expense of Senegal, but lose James Rodriguez. The Colombians are no pushovers, but should the Three Lions get past them they will face the winner of Switzerland and Sweden for a trip to the World Cup semifinals.