Gareth Southgate could not have been more impressed by captain Harry Kane’s response to seeing his Golden Boot tilt put on hold, praising the sharpshooter’s collective focus ahead of the World Cup knockout phase.
With progress to the last-16 assured with a match to spare, the Three Lions boss used Thursday’s Group G clash against Belgium as a chance to give squad players a run out and rest star men.
Speculation was rife as to who would be dropped in Kaliningrad, and skipper Kane was reduced to a watching brief in the 1-0 loss despite scoring five goals across the matches against Tunisia and Panama.
“I felt the need to sit with him, but he was brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” Southgate said of the striker.
“He totally understood 100 per cent team first.
“He said ‘look, I know everyone says I want the Golden Boot – of course it’s something I want to do – but the main thing is getting the team through the first knockout’.
“He was excellent on that, showed real leadership and understanding of the big picture.”
Kane will come straight back into the side for what Southgate called England’s “biggest match in a decade”.
Should they lose to Colombia, the boss is sure to come under pressure for his eight changes against Belgium as well as his reluctance to bring on his skipper and chase the draw that would have seen them top Group G and face Japan.
Asked if he had put himself under pressure by making so many alterations in Kaliningrad, Southgate said: “Well, maybe I have, maybe I haven’t. That is the least of my concerns.
“The most important thing for me is the players are in the best physical condition for the game.
“I don’t think mentally we lose anything because they know we’ve made changes and they know Belgium weren’t their full team as well.
“So, we’re in to big matches where margins will be fine and judgement on me will be extremely harsh. That’s why we’re here.
“We want to be in those games. I wasn’t so comfortable with the love-in (before the game), to be honest, so nice that there’s a little bit of an edge back.”
Southgate is hoping to lead England to their first knockout win since 2006 in Moscow, where he believes his side will rise to the “fantastic challenge” posed by Colombia and reach the quarter-finals.
Success at the Spartak Stadium would highlight the progress in the two years since England’s last major tournament ended with a humiliating Euro 2016 exit to Iceland.
“Many different reasons,” Southgate said of England’s knockout struggles. “But you’re playing against the best players in the world.
“We’ve at times had a squad with real top players and at times we’ve had a squad with not such outstanding players who’ve been in those knockout situations.
“There’ve been many different reasons for not getting over the line. Some disciplinary, some have been penalty shoot outs.
“But more often than not we have not been able to win those matches in normal time or in extra time.
“So loads of different reasons, but the main one being the level of the opposition, playing against the very best. They pose you different technical and tactical challenges as we had (against Belgium).”
But star-studded Colombia are sure to prove a far tougher test than Belgium’s back-ups in Moscow.
“It’s exciting,” Southgate said of the clash. “We’ve got the chance to be the team that changes that.
“It’s one of the reasons why we’ve done what we did (against Belgium), to give ourselves the best possible opportunity of doing that.
“For me, it’s going to be a brilliant game to be involved in.
“It looked like Colombia had 30,000-40,000 fans in the stadium. I went to two of their games in Brazil (four years ago) – they were incredible occasions.
“They have some top players, some top attacking players in particular.
“But we also have some really good players who are full of belief and looking forward to this challenge.”