England qualified as runners-up in Group G and booked a World Cup last-16 date with Colombia as Adnan Januzaj earned a 1-0 win for Belgium on a curious night in Kaliningrad.
With qualification to the knockout stage already assured, two second-string sides laboured in a low-key encounter where three points to seal top spot – and a seemingly tougher route through the tournament – appeared a dubious prize.
A superior disciplinary record had meant stalemate was always likely to see Gareth Southgate’s men finish at the summit but though Belgium racked up further bookings, they found the back of the net through Januzaj’s fine 51st-minute strike.
England will now face Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday – Sweden or Switzerland looming in the quarter-finals if they can clear that hurdle – while Belgium tackle Japan in the top half of a draw where heavyweights Brazil, France, Argentina, Uruguay and Portugal still lurk.
England: Pickford (6), Alexander-Arnold (6), Cahill (7), Stones (6), Jones (6), Rose (7), Dier (5), Delph (6), Loftus-Cheek (7), Rashford (6), Vardy (6).
Subs used: Maguire (7), Welbeck (6).
Belgium: Courtois (6), Dendoncker (6), Boyata (6), Vermaelen (6), Fellaini (6), Dembele (7), Tielemans (7), Chadli (6), T Hazard (5), Januzaj (7), Batshuayi (6).
Subs used: Kompany (6), Mertens (6).
Man of the match: Ruben Loftus-Cheek
The merits of finishing second, as opposed to first, had dominated the pre-match talk and though Southgate matched Roberto Martinez with a raft of changes, England made a brisk start, Jamie Vardy pouncing on Thorgan Hazard’s back-pass with Thibaut Courtois forced to stretch out a leg.
Belgium showed fleeting early intent of their own and after Youri Tielemans called Jordan Pickford into action, a familiar Marouane Fellaini knockdown sparked a scramble, Gary Cahill sliding to clear off the line after the ball slipped from the Everton goalkeeper’s grasp.
Gareth Southgate made eight changes from the side that beat Panama, Marcus Rashford given a chance to impress in the supporting forward role and Trent Alexander-Arnold earning a first competitive cap.
Roberto Martinez made nine alterations, Michy Batshuayi leading the line and Thorgan Hazard starting, with brother Eden on the bench.
But the contest degenerated amid frustrated jeers and Mexican waves. Tielemans and then Leander Dendoncker clattered Danny Rose, bookings boosting England’s fair-play points advantage, and attempts from Hazard and Januzaj were wayward.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek headed wide under pressure as England showed set-piece threat once more, while Trent Alexander-Arnold made another fine clearance at the other end, but more keep-ball brought boos as the half-time whistle came.
Marcus Rashford had sight of goal soon after the restart, opening up yet failing to generate enough bend, but Januzaj soon went better up the other end, rolling studs over the ball to deceive Rose before curling high into the net.
Though increasingly disjointed in midfield, England should have equalised midway through the half when Vardy slipped Rashford through again, only for the Manchester United forward to fire wide via the fingertips of Courtois.
England sent on Danny Welbeck with 12 minutes to go – sacrificing Alexander-Arnold and shuffling the backline – but though Rashford seized set-piece duty, his late free-kick flew over the bar.
Belgium pushed to stretch their lead in the closing stages but Pickford parried a Dries Mertens effort and Fellaini lashed into the side-netting, group fates finally sealed after all the talk.
Man of the match – Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Trent Alexander-Arnold deserves credit on his World Cup debut, even if his performance level dipped, and Danny Rose staked a claim but in a much-changed England side, Ruben Loftus-Cheek gets the nod. He headed wide from a corner, made a couple of promising runs and continued showing for the ball when Belgium’s grip tightened in the second half.
- This is the first time in their 15 appearances at the World Cup that England have failed to keep a clean sheet in the first-round group stages of a tournament.
- Belgium have won all three of their group stage games in consecutive World Cup appearances, the first nation to do so since both Argentina and the Netherlands in 2010 and 2014.
- England had 11 shots in this match but failed to score. They also had 11 shots in their previous match against Panama, scoring six times.
- Belgium’s goal came from their first shot of any kind in the second half.
- Adnan Januzaj’s goal was his first for Belgium in what was his ninth appearance for the national side.
- Danny Welbeck’s appearance from the bench means that England have used all 20 outfield players in the 2018 World Cup.
England face Colombia in a 7pm kick-off on Tuesday at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium, in a game Gareth Southgate has described as the “biggest in a decade”. Belgium take on Japan at the same time a day earlier in Rostov-on-Don.