Kaliningrad (Russia) (AFP) – England coach Gareth Southgate said Wednesday his team was concentrated on winning matches, not plotting a particular route through the World Cup knockout stage, ahead of their Group G showdown with Belgium.
Both teams have already qualified for the last 16 and, with one of Colombia, Japan or Senegal lurking in the second round, there has even been some talk that England might have an easier route through the tournament if they lose in Kaliningrad on Thursday.
But on a day when holders Germany crashed out of the tournament with a shock 2-0 loss to South Korea, Southgate said his side were focused on Belgium alone.
“We need to keep winning football matches and we want to breed a mentality that everybody in our squad wants to constantly win,” he told reporters.
“We’ve not won a knockout game since 2006, why we would be starting to plot which would be a better venue for our semi-final is beyond me really.
“We’re trying to develop a winning mentality and I can’t imagine a situation where I stand in front of the group of players I’ve got and start talking to them about anything else,” said the former under-21s coach.
England impressed in their opening two World Cup games, albeit against weak opposition, beating Tunisia 2-1 in Volgograd then thrashing Panama 6-1 in Nizhny Novgorod.
But in Belgium they face the world’s third-ranked side, and a squad loaded with world-class talent such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
“We’re going to face tougher challenges in the next few games and at the moment we can’t consider ourselves a top team until we start to beat one of those teams,” said Southgate.
“But we have a hunger to keep improving and we’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
In the form of captain Harry Kane, England have Russia’s top goalscorer so far with five, and the Tottenham talisman is likely to start against Belgium.
But Southgate did concede he would probably make some changes for a clash that neither side needs to win.
“When you make changes and players come in they have a high level of motivation, they know it’s a brilliant opportunity to play at the World Cup and they want to show what they can do,” he said.
“One of the key things for me is that everyone is ready to come in, not only in tomorrow’s games but the games beyond that.”
– Lukaku out –
Opposite number Roberto Martinez is expected to make wholesale changes to his team, with Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku almost certain to miss out after picking up an ankle knock in Belgium’s 5-2 win over Tunisia.
“At the moment he’s still in the recovery phase but tomorrow is probably one day too early for him,” Martinez said.
Unlike Southgate, the former Everton and Wigan manager said he was approaching Thursday’s game with one eye firmly on the knockout rounds.
“Tomorrow we want to perform well but I think the priority is not to win,” he said.
“That’s the reality. We wanted to qualify, we’ve done that. There are players who have been in very demanding games so its very important for us to protect and give every player the best opportunity to be in the best condition in the knockout games.”
Germany’s Group F exit has blown one side of the draw wide open, but Southgate said his side feared no one after making an encouraging start in Russia.
“We want to win the game and that would mean we top the group and we would go into whatever game we go into moving forward,” he said.