KALININGRAD, Russia — England barely seemed troubled by losing. Belgium appeared to be a reluctant winner.
Such was the curious conclusion to the group stage at the World Cup on Thursday. Neither team needed to win and there was good reason for neither to even want to win.
Belgium did collect the three points, beating England 1-0, and secured first place in the group on Adnan Januzaj’s curling shot. But that might not turn out to be the desirable outcome since the victory diverted Belgium onto the tougher potential path to the final.
Although Belgium gets what appears to be an easier match against Japan in the round of 16, it could get trickier with a victory in Rostov-on-Don on Monday. Brazil, Portugal, France and Argentina are possible future opponents.
“I don’t think you can plan the ideal scenario,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said. “You have seen big nations coming very close to elimination, or already eliminated.”
Thanks to a pair of opening victories for both, England and Belgium entered the Group G match knowing they were already in the second round. Belgium made nine changes and still won. England lost the top spot after dropping Harry Kane, the tournament’s leading scorer, and seven others.
England coach Gareth Southgate could barely contain his delight in finding himself on the less challenging side of the draw. His team will face Colombia on Tuesday in Moscow, followed by possible matchups against Spain, Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.
“We don’t suffer for (the loss),” Southgate said. “When you are a leader and a manager you have to make decisions that are right for your group and your primary objectives. Sometimes those decisions will be criticized … but you have to think about the bigger picture.”
For Southgate, it was as much about ensuring players like Kane did not pick up injuries in a game that wasn’t essential. The leading scorer in Russia with five goals watched the match from the bench. So did Romelu Lukaku, who has scored four for Belgium.
“We don’t like to lose, but tonight there were other factors that were more important,” Southgate said. “We know our strongest 11, but what’s pleasing is that there are guys that have put their hand up tonight to really push for a place.”
Poland 1, Japan 0
VOLGOGRAD, Russia — Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last at the World Cup.
Fair play, a newly implemented tiebreaker in the group stage of the world’s biggest soccer tournament, was put into use for the first time and Japan came out as the beneficiary.
Despite losing to Poland, the Japanese were able to advance a round of 16 match against Belgium because they received fewer yellow cards than Senegal, which lost to Colombia by the same score at the same time.
Once Colombia had scored in Samara, Japan knew it had done enough to advance even though it was losing late in its match. The Japanese players slowed play down to almost nothing, softly passing the ball back and forth in little triangles in their own end to waste time.
The fans at the Volgograd Arena showed their displeasure by booing and whistling loudly over the final minutes. Poland, happy to get a victory after two losses, did little to pressure the opposing side.
Colombia 1, Senegal 0
SAMARA, Russia — Yerry Mina scored the only goal. The 6-foot-5 (1.95-meter) Barcelona defender leapt above a pair of Senegalese defenders to head the ball hard off the ground, off Senegal goalkeeper Khadim Ndiaye’s hand and into the net, sending the enthusiastic Colombian fans at Samara Stadium into a frenzy.
Colombia, which reached the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil, is the fourth South American team to advance, with only Peru getting eliminated. All five African teams failed to move on.
Tunisia 2, Panama 1
SARANSK, Russia — 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 triumph over Panama. 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.