LONDON – There are two ways of looking at England’s 1-0 defeat by Belgium. Finishing second in Group H meant that on Tuesday, England plays Colombia with the prospect of either Switzerland or Sweden for the winner. Group winner Belgium meets Japan on Monday and the winner of that game faces Brazil or Mexico.
The general feeling in England is that Colombia is a better team than Japan, but no one wants to play Brazil, though pitting your wits against the most successful country in World Cup history should surely be the dream for every player?
So, for England it’s Colombia, Sweden or Switzerland to reach the World Cup semifinals. That’ll do nicely. Bring them on. Losing to Belgium did England a favor. Really?
As England has won only two tournament knockout matches in 28 years it was a little arrogant to pre-judge what might be the easier ride. The South Americans are no doubt saying for them it is England, Sweden or Switzerland to reach the last four.
It has been a long wait for England to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup. After two matches at the 2014 finals, England had already been eliminated after defeats by Italy and Uruguay. All that was left for the Three Lions (lambs?) in Brazil was a dead rubber 0-0 draw against Costa Rica that was so drab even those who watched the match on television asked for their money back.
England was eliminated at the group stage of the World Cup for the first time since 1958. Manager Roy Hodgson somehow survived until Euro 2016 when the defeat by Iceland saw him beat the bullet by resigning.
In came Sam Allardyce for one match before Gareth Southgate assumed control. After England’s two opening wins at Russia 2018 — a pretty unimpressive 2-1 victory over Tunisia and a 6-1 thrashing on Panama, when England was pretty and impressive, Southgate was elevated to being “one of the most influential individuals in the history of English football” in The Times. Whoa, steady.
The wins raised the feel-good factor of the national team to new heights, though given the dross of recent tournaments that would never have taken too much to achieve. The group games have each attracted better viewing figures than last month’s Royal Wedding. Harry Kane 1, Prince Harry 0.
It was right that the country was excited by the national team because with a match to spare England had qualified for the knockout stages, the opposite of last time around, yet as ever when the national team is on a roll, albeit victories over two of the poorest sides at Russia 2018, hope soon became hysteria.
The shift in English expectations had been based on little hard evidence. Four years ago, England was beaten by Italy and Uruguay, which have won the World Cup on a collective six occasions; this time around it was Tunisia and Panama, the teams ranked 21st and 55th in the world.
The reality check came with the 1-0 defeat by Belgium. England had lost to the first decent team it had played in Russia and to rub salt in English wounds, the winning goal was scored by Adnan Januzaj, the former Manchester United forward who was also eligible for England.
Southgate made eight changes against Belgium, which made nine changes, but Roberto Martinez’s second XI proved better than England’s. The loss underlined, if indeed it needed underlining, that England’s squad lacks the strength in depth needed at the highest level.
The bottom line is that England lost to a team that didn’t really want to win. If England beats Colombia, then Southgate’s selection was a masterstroke. Lose and it was the decision that saw England exit the World Cup.
Of his team selection, Southgate said: “I know that decision will be criticized, but I’m entirely comfortable with that. Sometimes,you have to make decisions with the bigger picture, and that’s what I did (against Belgium).
“Belgium had better control, possession and chances. We want to win football matches and we are not happy to lose, but we had double objectives. What this means in the knockout stage, who knows? The knockout game (against Colombia) is the biggest game for a decade for us so we had to make sure our key players were preserved.”
Southgate had hoped those who were given game time against Belgium would give him food for thought. Hand the manager a selection dilemma or two. The team he chooses to play Colombia will be the XI who beat Panama. He said he wanted to win, yet the team did not exactly back its manager’s claim with a tepid performance.
Danny Rose was badly at fault for Januzaj’s winning goal. Jordan Henderson has no worries that Erik Dier will keep his place on Tuesday. Marcus Rashford’s potential is taking longer than expected to see the striker reach the next level and his finishing against Belgium was profligate.
“It didn’t happen for Marcus,” said Southgate. “But we don’t suffer for it. As a group of staff, we were clear on what we felt was needed medically,physically and tactically. We’ve 20 outfield players now who have played in a World Cup, that’s hugely important.
“I believe Colombia is a game we can win and it’s going to be a fantastic challenge for us. They’ve some outstanding individual players, but I feel we’re improving. We still have levels to reach and work to do, but that’s nothing we didn’t know.”
A serious worry for Southgate will be Jordan Pickford, an inexperienced goalkeeper who is the best of an average bunch. Colombia’s talisman, James Rodriguez, may not be fit to face England, but Radamel Falcao, Juan Quintero and Juan Cuadrado will have noted the Everton player’s weaknesses, not least his preference to push the ball away rather than catch it.
For all Southgate’s popularity and public relations skills, he knows he will be judged by results. Football has no grey areas. On Tuesday he will be elevated to ridiculous heights or be held responsible for yet another England underachievement at a major finals.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.