Gareth Southgate is confident England will rise to the “fantastic challenge” posed by Colombia and reach the World Cup quarter-finals.
With qualification to the knockout phase assured after wins against Tunisia and Panama, the Three Lions boss made eight changes against Belgium’s back-ups in what proved a drab Group G finale.
Adnan Januzaj’s exquisite effort secured Roberto Martinez’s men a 1-0 win on Thursday which enabled them to top the pool, with Southgate focused on protecting key men and keeping squad players happy rather than chasing the point that would have meant England won the group.
An easier-looking World Cup path now awaits but that is tempered by the Three Lions’ loss of momentum and tough last-16 tie against Colombia in Moscow next Tuesday.
“I thought Senegal would also be a very tough game in a different way, so I think all of that group was up in the air,” Southgate said of the Group H side that eventually finished behind Colombia and Japan.
“Colombia were behind a game because of the sending-off in the first few minutes of their first game.
“They’ve got some outstanding individuals, but I believe it’s a game we can win.
“It’s going to be a fantastic challenge for us. The numbers that they’ve got supporting them is clear, and they have some outstanding individual players.
“But we feel that we’re a team who are improving. I think that’s shown again tonight, that we’ve still got levels to reach and that we still have to do.
“But that’s nothing we didn’t know and, actually, that might also be another thing for us that isn’t a bad thing.
“If we win again tonight, then all of a sudden the reality of where we are might not have been in people’s minds.
“But we know where we are, we know how immaculate we have to be to win matches against the very best teams and we have got those challenges still to come.
“But that was our objective when we started the three matches.
“We achieved it and that allowed us to try and get as much as a competitive advantage as we could in the physical area.”
Southgate’s changes, and the fact that star names such as Harry Kane remained on the bench at 1-0 down, suggested he was in no mood to chase the game, but he is comfortable with the approach he took.
“Whatever happens next week, that was the right decision as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
“People will say ‘well, that will only be the right decision if we win’ but it was the right decision because we would potentially be going into a match that could go to extra-time and risking players we didn’t need to risk.
“Which half of the draw (is best)? Who knows what’s right or wrong?
“Our key is a knockout game that we’re hugely looking forward to.”
Southgate believes Tuesday is England’s “biggest match in a decade”, which is why it would have been “ridiculous” to risk Golden Boot leader Harry Kane in chasing a leveller against Belgium.
The former defender pointed to Colombia star James Rodriguez’s injury in their final group game as an example of this risk he would been taking in Kaliningrad, where he remained positive despite their first defeat in a year.
“We are showing signs of being an exciting football team,” Southgate said, having dismissed injury concerns over John Stones and praised Danny Rose.
“I think even tonight it was brilliant experience for people like Trent (Alexander-Arnold) and Ruben (Loftus-Cheek) to play in World Cup matches.
“They are 19 and 22, down that right-hand side of the pitch – it was a very inexperienced pairing but they both showed some excellent moments.
“I think you’ve seen what we are: we are young, enthusiastic, energetic, improving, not the finished article.
“Belgium are third in the world for a reason. They’ve played together for a long time, they’ve got some extremely experienced players even in the team tonight.
“So, we’ve still got some work to do but we’re pretty realistic within our own camp about where we are.
“But we also have great belief in what we’ve been doing over the last few months.
“We think tonight is a good experience. We don’t want to lose, but we’ll have learned a lot tonight.”