Belgium topped Group G at the World Cup after a gritty 1-0 win over England at, courtesy of a gem from youngster Adnan Januzaj.
There was a scare for Gareth Southgate’s men barely 10 minutes in, when Michy Batshuayi’s persistence poked the ball out of Jordan Pickford’s grasp, prompting Gary Cahill to make a retreating goal line clearance to keep the scores deadlocked.
Januzaj brought some needed life to the match just after the break, picking the ball up on the right-wing before beating Danny Rose with some swift footwork and bending a left-footed strike into the top corner.
Marcus Rashford missed a golden opportunity to equalise on 66 minutes when he was played through on goal, but failed to capitalise as Thibaut Courtois won the one-on-one battle.
Dries Mertens forced a wonderful save from Pickford as the game drew to a close, finishing a swift Belgian counter-attack with a venomous strike from outside the box.
England pushed for an equaliser and had a few half chances late on, but ultimately it was not to be for the Three Lions, who settle for second place in Group G.
Strength in depth
With all eyes firmly on the knockout stages, both managers rung in the changes to their sides to ensure that their key players remain fresh for the games to come.
England made eight alterations, with stars such as Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Kyle Walker taking a rest on the sidelines, while the absence of of Eden Hazard, Mertens, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne contributed to Belgium’s nine changes.
Despite a large number of fresh faces on both sides, no player looked out of place in their team and each made a case for more consistent appearances during the rest of the tournament.
Trent Alexander-Arnold fitted seamlessly in place of Kieran Trippier for England, while Jamie Vardy was a dangerous presence up front – showcasing the different options available to Gareth Southgate.
For Belgium, Januzaj was superb in wide areas as he spread the pitch and showed enthusiasm and confidence on the ball, evident in his superb individual goal. Roberto Martinez also saw an excellent performance from Mousa Dembele in midfield.
Both managers will be very encouraged by what they saw from some of their more fringe players in this game and can feel secure in the depth of their squad should any injuries or suspensions arise.
A blessing in disguise
Much was said in the lead up to this game about whether the winner, and therefore the team that tops the group, would truly be the beneficiary or whether it may in fact be more desirable to finish runner-up.
Belgium’s victory means that they face Group H’s second placed team in Japan, before a potential quarter-final meeting with Brazil, should the Seleção overcome Mexico in the round of 16.
That is where the potential silver-lining is for the Three Lions, as if they beat Colombia in the round of 16, a perhaps less difficult quarter-final of either Sweden or Switzerland would await, paving the way for a potential semi-final with Spain, or the in-form Croatia.
Obviously, nothing is a formality in football, and certainly not in the World Cup – as this tournament has already seen with Germany being sent packing, and powerhouses Argentina labouring through the group stages.
England have not won a knockout match at the World Cup since 2006, but perhaps this is their time to flourish and stamp their authority on the biggest stage.
Belgium emerge as potential favourite
With Germany out and the likes of France, Spain and Argentina yet to play their best football, Martinez and his team have emerged as a front-runner to lift the trophy come the end of the tournament.
Facing their first proper test of the World Cup after dispatching of Panama and Tunisia, the Red Devils rose to the challenge and conquered an England side full of confidence and in good form.
Advancing to the knockout stages as one of just three nations with maximum points and boasting the largest goal difference of the 32 teams, Belgium are set up for a long run in Russia and could be challenging in the latter stages.
That likely quarter-final match up with Brazil will be mouth-watering, and judging by the form of the big teams so far, the winner of that match could well be the best bet to win the whole thing.
After being knocked out in the last eight in both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championships, now is Belgium’s time to take the reins and prove their worth in major tournaments, and they currently have the form and the talent to do exactly that.