There can surely be no people on earth quite as prone to negativity as the English. After two impressive performances at the World Cup, England made eight changes for the final group game while their opponents, Belgium, made nine. There was a strange sense that winning the group might prove a poisoned chalice with Brazil potentially waiting in the quarter-finals but Adnan Januzaj’s strike was enough to ensure England will face Colombia rather than Japan this week, a game that is by no means a foregone conclusion. Should Gareth Southgate’s men triumph, though, the winner of Sweden’s match against Switzerland is all that stands between England and just the third World Cup semi-final in their history.
While it might be foolhardy to look ahead and plot a favourable route to the final, both managers rested key players in the knowledge that losing was by no means a disaster. Japan would undoubtedly have been an easier game than Colombia but it’s hard to not feel as though England have ended up on the more forgiving side of the draw. Man makes plans and God laughs, though, as evidenced when Belgium thought similar in Euro 2016 and were dumped out of the competition by Chris Coleman’s Wales team.
Marcus Rashford had a golden opportunity to level the score and ensure England went through at the top of the group but one senses his miss might prove a blessing in a very obvious disguise. The fact is that an unheralded side is now certain to reach this year’s final and England may never get a better opportunity. This is a young team and one fears this World Cup may have come a little too early for the players but, with Argentina, Germany, Portugal and Spain all already eliminated, this is the moment to try and make history.
Some negative souls have tried to argue that the Belgium defeat will have had an adverse effect on momentum but so few of those involved are likely to start against Colombia that this seems an especially glass half empty kind of attitude. Was Southgate right to rest players and refuse to bring on Harry Kane to try and salvage a draw? We will know the answer to that question by the end of Tuesday evening. If England are still in the competition, it was exactly the right move but if they’re not, Japan would have been the preferable round of 16 opponent.
We live in an era in which reactions are often kneejerk and every football match is analysed and dissected ad nauseam. Occasionally we do not learn five things from a game and the defeat to Belgium told us little to nothing about England in 2018. The players have to be inspired by the progress their countrymen made in 1990 when the draw opened up and Bobby Robson’s team were able to reach the semi-final, the furthest England have ever gone in a major tournament on foreign soil. If Southgate’s side can successfully navigate a stern test on Tuesday night then they have every chance of emulating such a feat.