Gareth Southgate defended his decision to rest eight players in a 1-0 defeat to Belgium ahead of England’s “biggest match for a decade”.
Southgate’s much-changed side went down to a similarly second-string Belgian side thanks to Adnan Januzaj’s goal in a low-key, disjointed game that never really got going.
England now face Colombia in the last 16, while Belgium face Japan.
The fear must be that England have also lost hard-won momentum and goodwill ahead of the knockouts, but Southgate insists he made the right call.
“This was a game that we wanted to win, but the knockout game is the biggest game for a decade for us so we had to make sure our key players were preserved,” said Southgate.
“The players who’ve played tonight have given absolutely everything and never stopped. Everyone’s seen the level that we’ve been playing at and we’ve got to keep improving.
“We want to win football matches, so we’re not happy to come away from here having been beaten. But what that means for the next round, we don’t really know.
“We created openings to get something from the game, but we have to keep improving. I think the supporters know what the most important thing is.
“I think it was a pretty even game. I thought they had the better controlled possession, and the better chances in the first half.
“But we had a couple of good ones in the second. So it was a good test of us. We had half an eye on the knockout. Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy kept running. It didn’t happen for them tonight, but we don’t suffer for it.”