England play Colombia in the last 16 and, if they win that game, Sweden or Switzerland in the quarter-finals
England lost 1-0 to Belgium on Thursday to finish second in World Cup Group G but the fact they will now potentially avoid Brazil, Argentina, France and Portugal until the final means it could be the sweetest of defeats.
It was a game nobody seemingly wanted to win.
England made eight changes from the team who crushed Panama 6-1 while Belgium coach Roberto Martinez – who said pre-match that winning was not the priority-went one better, making nine alterations from the side who cruised to victory over Tunisia.
The biggest cheers were reserved for yellow cards, adding to the hilarity of the spectacle. With England and Belgium locked on points and the same goal difference, the fair play would decide who finished top if the game finished in a draw.
England started one caution behind Belgium, but the Belgians soon had two more to their name. Each foul was cheered by the Belgian fans with ironic cheers coming from the England contingent too.
In the second half, Adnan Januzaj forgot the script as he curled in a brilliant goal to win the match for Martinez’s side, and England were unable, or unwilling, to find a leveller.
This was nothing like as brazen as the infamous “Disgrace of Gijon” at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where West Germany and Austria played out a mutually beneficial result to knock out Algeria.
England had 11 shots but failed to score. They also mustered 11 shots in the match against Panama, netting six times.
Some of those chances went close, with excellent interplay between Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy creating a big opportunity for the former, but he fired just wide.
However, there was no effort from the England bench to find a way back in. Harry Kane has been in prolific form in Russia, netting five goals in his first two matches to lead the scoring charts.
But the fact that he remained on the sidelines when England were supposedly chasing the game, and Danny Welbeck, who has started just one match for club or country since the end of April, came on instead, spoke volumes for England’s approach.
“When you are a leader and a manager you need to make decisions that are right for your group and sometimes those decisions will be criticised and I understand that,” England manager Gareth Southgate told reporters.
England play Colombia in the last 16 and, if they win that game, Sweden or Switzerland in the quarter-finals.
Fans voiced criticism on social media, unhappy at the lack of desire to maintain momentum, but when they look at the wall charts, and those big guns that have been potentially avoided, any discontent will likely be short-lived.
FIFA World Cup 2018: Tunisia tops Panama 2-1 for first World Cup win in 40 years
Goals from Ben Youssef and Wahbi Khazri cancelled out Panama’s first half strike, ensuring Tunisia don’t finish at the bottom of the group.
Tunisia captain Wahbi Khazri set up a second-half goal and then scored one of his own to help his side secure its first victory in a World Cup in four decades.
The striker’s hard, rising shot in the 66th minute lifted Tunisia to a 2-1 triumph over Panama on Thursday night. It came 15 minutes after Khazri’s pinpoint square pass produced Fakhreddine Ben Youssef’s equalizer.
Panama had taken the lead in the 33rd minute through an own-goal when Jose Luis Rodriguez’s hard shot deflected off of a Tunisia player that sent the goalkeeper the wrong way.
Both Group G teams were already eliminated going into the match. Tunisia hadn’t won a World Cup game since a 3-1 victory over Mexico in 1978.
Tunisia’s victory was expected, looking more competitive in losses to England and Belgium than Panama, which was competing in its first World Cup. Tunisia also has more accomplished club professionals in its squad, but it was missing several players because of injuries.
In addition to dealing with the absence of defender Dylan Bronn, Tunisia had to start 33-year-old third-choice goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi because its other keepers were injured.
Panama held a 1-0 halftime lead after a goal set up in part by Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres. His pass set up Rodriguez’s left-footed shot that deflected off Tunisia forward Yassine Meriah. It became the 50th own-goal in World Cup history when Meriah turned his body to block the shot and ended up sending it inside the far post after Mathlouthi had already started moving the other way,
The goal came against the run of play. Tunisia dominated the match with 64-percent possession and finished with 15 shots to Panama’s nine.
But it didn’t take long for Tunisia to equalize on what was somewhat of a World Cup milestone, the 2,500th goal in the history of the tournament, which dates to 1930.
The victory provided a measure of vindication for coach Nabil Maaloul, who led the team to the World Cup by infusing his lineups with younger players.
Japan needed a point before the game to guarantee their progress but Nishino elected to rest six players who started against Senegal, including his four scorers in the tournament, star players Takashi Inui and Shinji Kagawa and captain Makoto Hasebe.
Although indebted to a fine save from Kawashima to keep out a header from Kamil Grosicki in the first half, Japan were in control and had spurned chances of their own to score. Then Poland exposed Japan’s weakness at defending set-pieces, Bednarek volleying home Rafal Kurzawa’s free-kick from inside the six-yard box and Nishino really would have been sweating in Volgograd’s 100 degree heat had Lewandowski not ballooned Grosicki’s pinpoint cross over from close range.