It had been viewed as the game no one wanted to win but Adnan Januzaj’s fine finish early in the second half gave Belgium a 1-0 victory over England to secure top spot in Group G as both sides made wholesale changes to their lineups.
The result means Belgium, who won all three of their group games to finish on nine points, will face Japan in the last 16 while England, who came second with six, take on Colombia.
That gives Gareth Southgate’s England a tougher test in the second round, but should they get past the South Americans they will find themselves on a much more promising path to the final.
Belgium’s side of the draw includes Argentina, Brazil, Portugal and France while England’s opponents are, on paper, easier and they face less traveling should they progress.
“We want to win football matches, so we’re not happy to come away from here having been beaten. But what that means for the next round, we don’t really know,” said Southgate.
“The knockout game is the biggest game for a decade, so we had to make sure our key players were preserved,” he added, having left out captain and talisman Harry Kane among others.
“We created openings to get something from the game, but we have to keep improving. I think the supporters know what the most important thing is,” said Southgate.
It was only Belgium’s second ever win over England and their first since 1936 and coach Roberto Martinez suggested he was not worried about the impact of the result on his team’s possible future opponents.
“The victory is a consequence of a very good performance. You cannot plan the ideal scenario, you’ve seen big nations already eliminated,” said the Spaniard.
“We need to look at ourselves, we are a stronger group than we were before the game. We’re facing Japan, we’ve got to be ready for it,” he said.
When Belgium and England play in the last 16 their lineups will bear little resemblance to those fielded on Thursday.
As expected both managers used their squads to the full — Martinez switching nine players and Southgate bringing in eight from his reserves, a decision he had described as a ‘no brainer’ in the circumstances.
Belgium created the better openings in a poor first half while England showed greater urgency but a lack of finesse in the final third where they missed tournament top scorer Kane and the movement of Jesse Lingard, who both watched from the bench.
Former Manchester United midfielder Januzaj broke the deadlock with a superb curling effort in the 51st minute and the manner of the goal celebration should have silenced any fears that Martinez’s side were not interested in victory.
England then pushed on looking for an equalizer but they lacked a cutting edge. Striker Marcus Rashford had the best chance but his shot was already wide of the target when keeper Thibaut Courtois got his fingertips to the ball.
Belgium came close to a second goal in the final minutes when Jordan Pickford made a diving save to keep out a rasping Dries Mertens effort but by then both sides seemed to have accepted their lot as they looked ahead to the second round.