Belgium manager Roberto Martinez is cheerfully ambivalent about the prospect of beating England in Kaliningrad, claiming victory is not “a priority” now that both sides have booked their place in the last 16.
A fixture that was once seen as a potential source of ripe dramatic tension has been robbed of that edge due to the inability of Panama and Tunisia to make an impression on Group G’s leading lights.
England have been vocal about the importance of keeping their winning streak alive and gathering all the momentum they can but the mood music from the rival camp has a different tone.
There are suggestions they prefer the travel arrangements associated with the runners-up spot, which would allow extra recovery time and closer proximity to their Moscow training base, and
Martinez did little to dispel the notion at his eve of match address.
“At the moment we are qualified and that was the priority we were chasing,” he said. “Now we need to look at individual players. We want to perform well but the priority is not to win, that’s the reality of the situation.
“If we win, great, but I don’t think winning is the priority. It’s a celebration game.”
Instead of chasing three points – and the statement that would come with them – the former Everton and Wigan boss is prioritising the conditioning of his squad.
Some will be sitting out on fitness grounds, four-goal striker Romelu Lukaku among them, those who have picked up one yellow card and are one away from a caution will be absent and several who have yet to feature will get the chance to impress. There could be as many as 10 changes, with only goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois certain to keep his place.
Yet rather than weakening his XI to engineer a preferred path to the final, the Spaniard sees his selection as a process of fine-tuning future options for the business end of the tournament.
“At the final whistle I want the players to have had a good performance and for everyone to have a better opportunity to contribute to the team for the knockout stage,” he said.
“I meant it when I arrived in Moscow and said I believed in every player in the squad. It would be stupid of me not to believe that now.”
Martinez had warm words for his opposite number, praising Southgate’s enlightened reboot of England on the second anniversary of the team’s Euro 2016 defeat at the hands of Iceland.
“What I see with Gareth Southgate is his success at under-21 level, and almost knowing the house inside out, using the power of St George’s Park. I think that’s developed an England culture,” he said.
“I’m not surprised. He’s a thinker, he’s a very meticulous worker, and I wish him the very best of luck after tomorrow.
“I don’t think it’s about bringing players together and hoping they’re going to perform. I think there’s a clear structure, there is a real tactical awareness.”