By Peter Hall
KALININGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - England lost 1-0 to Belgium on Thursday to finish second in World Cup Group G but the fact they will now potentially avoid Brazil, Argentina, France and Portugal until the final means it could be the sweetest of defeats.
It was a game nobody seemingly wanted to win.
England made eight changes from the team who crushed Panama 6-1 while Belgium coach Roberto Martinez - who said pre-match that winning was not the priority - went one better, making nine alterations from the side who cruised to victory over Tunisia.
It was a bizarre scene. A clash between two of Europe’s strongest sides, at the World Cup, where top spot in the group was up for grabs, and fans were booing inside the stadium as Belgium went from side to side in the first half and England allowed them to do so.
The biggest cheers were reserved for yellow cards, adding to the hilarity of the spectacle. With England and Belgium locked on points and the same goal difference, fair play would decide who finished top if the game finished in a draw.
England started one caution behind Belgium, but the Belgians soon had two more to their name. Each foul was cheered by the Belgian fans with ironic cheers coming from the England contingent too.
In the second half, Adnan Januzaj forgot the script as he curled in a brilliant goal to win the match for Martinez’s side, and England were unable, or unwilling, to find a leveller.
This was nothing like as brazen as the infamous “Disgrace of Gijon” at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where West Germany and Austria played out a mutually beneficial result to knock out Algeria.
England had 11 shots but failed to score. They also mustered 11 shots in the match against Panama, netting six times.
Some of those chances went close, with excellent interplay between Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy creating a big opportunity for the former, but he fired just wide.
However, there was no effort from the England bench to find a way back in. Harry Kane has been in prolific form in Russia, netting five goals in his first two matches to lead the scoring charts.
But the fact that he remained on the sidelines when England were supposedly chasing the game, and Danny Welbeck, who has started just one match for club or country since the end of April, came on instead, spoke volumes for England’s approach.
“When you are leader and a manager you need to make decisions that are right for your group and sometimes those decisions will be criticised and I understand that,” England manager Gareth Southgate told reporters.
England play Colombia in the last 16 and, if they win that game, Sweden or Switzerland in the quarter-finals.
Fans voiced criticism on social media, unhappy at the lack of desire to maintain momentum, but when they look at the wall charts, and those big guns that have been potentially avoided, any discontent will likely be short-lived.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)