Russian roulette: England losebut will gamble pay off?

When is a defeat not a defeat? Its a curious logic, but perhaps when it diverts your team into what is – on paper, at least – an easier half of the World Cup draw.

That certainly appeared to be Gareth Southgates take after Englands loss to Belgium tonight in Kaliningrad, a tepid Group G decider played out by two second-string teams aware that victory may come at a price.

A failure to prioritise the win was a calculated gamble by Southgate. Until Tuesdays last-16 tie with Colombia, however, we wont know which way the chips have fallen.

Read more: World Cup 2018: What we learned from day 14

A fierce, whipped strike from Adnan Januzaj – once pursued by the Football Association in the hope that he would pledge allegiance to England – ensured Belgium topped the group with maximum points and progressed to a second-round date with Japan on Monday.

That appears an easier tie than Englands meeting with Colombia, but beyond that Robert Martinezs team would likely have to overcome Brazil followed by France, Argentina, Portugal or Uruguay.

Should they reach the last eight, Southgates side will face Sweden or Switzerland, followed by Spain, Russia, Croatia or Denmark.

Southgate brushed off defeat, insisting: “We dont suffer for it.”

Implicit in the statement is that Colombia are eminently beatable last 16 opposition, although England cannot afford to underestimate the South Americans, who reached the quarter-finals at the last World Cup and have grown into this tournament, winning Group H with a 1-0 defeat of Senegal yesterday.

Japan are indisputably a weaker outfit who took four points and only pipped Senegal to second place by virtue of having fewer yellow cards.

Having commendably dispersed much of the hubris that has held England back on the international stage, it would be sad to see Southgates promising start to the tournament consumed by it on Tuesday.

Rashford missed England's best chance to equalise in the second half (Source: Getty)

Whatever the relative merits of the draw, England have lost some of the wind in their sails built up by the opening victory over Tunisia and subsequent marmalising of Panama.

It may be that the eight changes made to the starting XI means that the psychological damage is minimised, but the fact is that a 12-match unbeaten run dating back a year is now dust.

Southgates weakened selection signalled that winning the match was not his only priority, yet when Belgium, who made nine changes themselves, scored and England did chase the game they werent able to equalise, labouring in the unconvincing manner to which supporters have become wearily resigned.

No matter how you spin it, that is a knock to the confidence that has coursed through recent performances.

Understudies show value of first XI

This was billed as a chance for Englands fringe players to state their case for a place in the first team, but none seized their opportunity with any conviction.

Marcus Rashford could have snatched the second striker spot from Raheem Sterling with a potent display here; instead it will be no surprise if Southgate reinstates the Manchester City man with his other regulars.

It wasnt for the want of trying: Rashford buzzed with intent, looking for holes in Belgiums makeshift back three to dart into, but when a half-chance arrived he side-footed wide and when Jamie Vardy sent him one on one with Thibaut Courtois, his unconvincing finish allowed the Chelsea goalkeeper to tip wide.

A glorious opening, it proved to be Englands best and the miss was made all the more frustrating by Ruben Loftus-Cheeks presence alongside Rashford, who could have presented his team-mate a tap-in with a square ball.

Danny Rose, another understudy with realistic claims for promotion, had a mixed evening at left wing-back.

The Tottenham player was penetrative with some of his runs in behind, showing the attacking advantage of having a natural left-footer in that position, rather than Ashley Young, whose tendency to cut in on his right holds few surprises.

But Rose should have done better for Januzajs goal. He was turned too easily, allowing the former Manchester United and Sunderland forward to shift the ball onto his favoured foot and powerfully beat Jordan Pickford.

England keeper Pickford failed to quell doubts about his form (Source: Getty)

While Trent Alexander-Arnold, Eric Dier, Fabian Delph and Jamie Vardy did little wrong, they merely served to underline how much more dangerous and able to control possession England look with Kieran Trippier, Jordan Henderson, Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane installed.

Goalkeeper Pickford remains a concern. While eye-catching, Januzajs shot looked saveable and his parries of efforts from Youri Tielemans and Dries Mertens sent the ball back into dangerous areas.

If it was hoped that a third consecutive start would ease his jitters, it doesnt appear to have worked.

Southgate is nothing if not a calculating manager, however, and his diligent preparations have largely paid off until now.

Should England sweep past unfashionable names into the last four he will be hailed as a genius and with some justification. Stumble out against a muscular and wily Colombia before reaching the promised land, though, and toasting group stage defeats wont look half as clever.

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