MOSCOW (Reuters) - After a surreal night on the Baltic where England struggled to contain their satisfaction with a defeat that offers them an easier path to the final, Belgium are trusting that World Cup fortune will favor the brave.
The last time this “golden generation” of Red Devils thought they had a soft draw they blew it, coach Roberto Martinez said. So now, they are ready to face anyone, after Japan next Monday.
Their 1-0 win and Group G top spot secured in Kaliningrad by a curling Adnan Januzaj strike has pitched them into the half of the knockout draw featuring Brazil, France and Argentina.
With defending champions Germany out, England’s half features only Spain among past winners.
But Martinez, who before the game had said winning was not a priority and made nine changes to his lineup, refused to look at the outcome that way and emphasized the vagaries of football.
“To be successful in a World Cup is not about facing the opponent that everyone expects is going to be giving you the golden key to go through,” the Spaniard said, noting the travails of Germany and other top teams so far.
“I don’t think that in the World Cup you can be successful by trying to hope to get an easy path.
“We saw that in the Euros two years ago.”
At Euro 2016, finishing second to Italy in their group meant Belgium would avoid meeting Germany, France or defending champions Spain before the final.
After crushing Hungary 4-0 in the last 16, the Belgians felt they had one hand on the trophy but unfancied Wales had other ideas and sent them packing 3-1 in the quarter-final.
“In a non-game that was hard to watch at times, England came out looking cynical and Belgium in the end decided not to sully their image,” concluded Brussels newspaper Le Soir after Thursday’s match in which England coach Gareth Southgate did little to try to rescue a draw in the final half hour.
Flemish daily De Standaard wrote: “The Red Devils showed they were sportsmanlike and ambitious and that they are afraid of no one — not even a quarter-final against Brazil.”
Martinez has hailed the pleasure his whole squad have been taking on the pitch and has worked to build a team spirit whereas clashes of egos bedevilled the Belgians under his predecessor Marc Wilmots at the last World Cup and at Euro 2016.
Avoiding questions about Brazil lying in wait after the Japan game, Martinez stressed that his focus was on Monday and on his players continuing to enjoy their football.
“I think there is a belief; we’ve been undefeated for a long long time,” he said of a run of 22 games unbeaten since losing to Spain in Martinez’s first game in charge in September 2016.
“There is a real understanding among the players and it’s an opportunity to face the best teams in the world ... I think we’ve done everything we can as a group to prepare ourselves.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford and Neil Robinson