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Against England, Belgium remain unbeaten to play Japan in last 16   

KALININGRAD Russia (Xinhua) -- Belgium remained unbeaten in Russia World Cup as they defeated England in the Kaliningrad Stadium Thursday night and will face Japan in the knockout stage.

England, who have won only two knockout matches in the past three decades, reached the last 16 as runner-up to face Colombia.

Both teams had brilliant records in previous two rounds of group matches, which ensured them early tickets to the round of 16.

Level on points, goal difference and goals scored, Thursday’s game would be decisive for the ranking.

The goal was scored in the 51st minute, as Adnan Januzaj cut in from the right, passed over Tottenham Hotspur defender Danny Rose and thwacked a shot into the net.

England almost equalized 15 minutes later, with the dribbling Marcus Rashford facing Belgium’s goalkeeper one-to-one. It was the best chance for England but the Manchester United striker had his shot right wide.

They went close against 10 minutes before the full-time stroke with a free-kick 27 meters from the goal. Rashford aimed at the top-right corner but the ball flew over the bar.

Then Ruben Loftus-Cheek blazed down the right, before curling the shot again over the bar.

When it came to stoppage time, Belgium nearly doubled the lead. Substitute Dries Mertens lashed a dipping strike which was palmed out by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

The match was watched by close to 34,000 spectators in the tournament’s westernmost destination.

Both teams played a changed team, with England resting eight of their players from the previous match and Belgium nine, including top scorer    Harry Kane who had five goals, Romelu Lukaku who had four and Eden Hazard, man of last match.

England started the game with more possession, but it was Belgium who appeared more menacing.

The 6th minute saw Belgium’s first threat, when Youri Tielemans received a pass from the right and slammed at the net from about 23 meters away. Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford made an excellent save.

Four minutes later, Adnan Januzaj delivered a cross to Marouane Fellaini, who nodded on it. Pickford tried to save but the ball rolled through him towards the line. It was Chelsea defender Gary Cahill who managed a last-second clearance.

Belgium gradually shifted the balance thereafter.

Michy Batshuayi, the Borussia Dortmund forward who had a stoppage-time goal against Tunisia, caused chaos for the Three Lions before the half-hour mark, which was later joined by Fellaini and Januzaj. It took some efforts from John Stones, Loftus-Cheek and Rashford to save the team amid scramble.

Shortly after that Trent Alexander-Arnold won a free-kick. He found Loftus-Cheek, who flicked the header wide.

Should the match continue to be fruitless, ranking will be decided by disciplinary record. Belgium players Leander Dendoncker and Youri Tielemans were booked in the first half.

“The victory is a consequence of a very good performance,” said Roberto Martinez, coach of Belgium.

The team who top the group will face Japan in the last 16 round, but, if win, are likely to have a bumpy road ahead against Brazil, France, Portugal or Argentina. However, no team which finished second in the group stages has won the World Cup since 1986.

“You cannot plan the ideal scenario, you’ve seen big teams already eliminated,” he said. “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.”

While England coach Gerath Southgate said that it was an even game. “The players who have played tonight have given absolutely everything and never stopped. Everyone’s seen the level that we’ve been playing at and we’ve got to keep improving,” he said.

Talking about his opponent, he said: ”They had better controlled possession than us at times...This was a game that we wanted to win, but the knockout game is the biggest game for a decade for us so we had to make sure our key players were preserved.”



Coaches: England and Belgium both wanted to win, but not at any cost

KALININGRAD Russia (Xinhua) -- Both England and Belgium head coaches said after their clash in the third round group match that they wanted to win, but not at any cost.

The game in the Kaliningrad Stadium on Thursday evening ended with Belgium winning 1-0. That result means the Red Devils topped Group G and will face Japan in the knockout stage, while England will take on Colombia.

It had been speculated before the game that both teams may have wanted to avoid finishing top of the group, as the winner may face tricky ties against the likes of Brazil, France, Portugal or Argentina.

However, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez played down the notion that his team would have been happier to lose. “I don’t think in the World Cup you can be successful by trying to hope to get an easy path,” the 44-year-old said.

“What you should try is to create a group, with everyone desperate to contribute and perform for each other,” he added.

However, Martinez noted that his team was clear from the outset that “winning at all costs is not an option”, explaining his decision to make nine changes to Belgium’s starting lineup.

“We have to spread the responsibility in the group. We have to see who is ready. We have to see how well some players are recovering from injury,” he said.

The Spaniard said he was satisfied with his team’s performance. “The young players showed they are ready to contribute,” he said, reserving special praise for Youri Tielemans, 21, and 23-year-old Adnan Januzaj.

“Maybe we are a little bit slow in finding the route we need to penetrate. But I think that is normal when you make nine changes,” he added.

Gareth Southgate, coach of England, seemed to share Martinez’s safety-first approach. “We would have potentially risked players that we didn’t have to risk,” he said, adding that it would have been foolish to play top goalscorer Harry Kane and risk him being injured.

“The game was a really good test for us. We knew that the level of the game was going to be high, even with both teams making changes. Belgium had controlled possession. We found it difficult to press.”

“But in terms of effectiveness and chances, we were probably fairly even. We had a couple of good chances and counterattacks. So I think we will learn a lot from the game. Tactically, it is a good game for us to review,” he added.

In response to a question from Xinhua, Southgate described his team as young, enthusiastic, energetic, and improving. “We are showing signs of being an exciting football team. Even tonight was a brilliant experience for people like Trent [Alexander-Arnold] and Ruben [Loftus-Cheek] to play in World Cup matches. They are 19, 21, but they both showed they were trying to make things happen.”

“Belgium are [ranked] third in the world for a reason, because they have played together for a long time, and they had extremely experienced players even in the game tonight. So we still have some work to do, but we are pretty realistic about where we are,” the England coach noted.

Discussing the match against Colombia next week, Southgate said it would be a fantastic challenge, but a game that England were capable of winning.”

Meanwhile, Martinez was at pains to point out the futile nature of making too many predictions, adding that his team was solely focused on their next match against Japan.

“Making predictions in the World Cup is difficult. Germany are out of the competition and I don’t think many people expected that. We saw that Spain only topped their group in the last three minutes of play. We saw how close Argentina came [to being eliminated]. So this World Cup is very unpredictable. Currently, Japan is our only priority.”

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