KALININGRAD • Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has brushed aside any qualms about the seemingly tougher route to the World Cup final his team face, after a 1-0 win over England that secured top spot in their last Group G match on Thursday.
"We need to go step by step, but I think that we can face anyone that we've got in front of us," the Spaniard said after an Adnan Januzaj goal early in the second half handed the Belgians by far the more daunting half of the draw.
Belgium - the third team to stay perfect at this World Cup, after Uruguay and Croatia - play Japan in the last 16 with the winners of that tie facing a tricky quarter-final against Brazil or Mexico.
France, Argentina and European champions Portugal also potentially lie in Belgium's way.
Facing questions over whether he might have preferred to finish second - a draw or defeat would have had that effect and some fans began to suspect that was the Belgian plan after a tame first-half performance from a side without Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, or Kevin de Bruyne - Martinez said: "Honestly, I am delighted."
Gareth Southgate's England, by contrast, face a difficult task in the next round against Colombia but are in the half of the draw in which the only other former champions are Spain.
In view of this, British bookmakers moved to cut England's odds of lifting their second World Cup title from 15/2 to 7/1 despite their loss in Kaliningrad.
Some sections of the British media even hailed the result.
"Well played, lads!" The Sun newspaper declared on its front page.
Southgate justified his weakened selection and a reluctance to bring Harry Kane off the bench by describing the last-16 match against Jose Pekerman's men as England's "biggest game for a decade".
His rejigged team managed a solitary shot on target, with Thibaut Courtois denying Marcus Rashford an equaliser.
"I think it was a pretty even game," Southgate said after watching his side have 47 per cent of the ball. "It was a good test and we had double objectives with half an eye on the knockout stages.
"We feel this was a game we wanted to win, but the knockout game is the biggest game for a decade for us. We had to make sure our key players were preserved."
Kane, still the tournament's leading scorer with five goals, will return to the side at Moscow's Spartak Stadium on Tuesday when England will seek only a third knockout win at the World Cup since 1990.
Southgate will have a fully fit squad from which to choose, including Dele Alli, who has recovered from a thigh strain and is likely to revert to the line-up that beat Tunisia 2-1 in their opener.
World No. 12 England's pursuit of a first win over opposition ranked higher at the Finals goes on, stretching back to a 1-0 win over Argentina in 2002. Former England defender Gary Neville was not concerned that the Three Lions failed to snap the streak against the world No. 3 side but provided perspective.
"There were players in that Belgium second XI that would be in our first XI," he told ITV. "That's the reality check."
REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN