By Steve Keating
KALININGRAD, Russia, Jun 27 : One of sport’s old adages is “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” but not for Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, at least not when his team take on England in their final World Cup round-robin match to decide top spot in Group G.
Normally a battle between European neighbours for first place at a World Cup would bring out the win-at-all-cost cliches but with Belgium already assured a spot in the last 16 along with England, Martinez was looking ahead for bigger scalps in the knockout round.
Martinez’s thinking, however, ran counter to that of England coach Gareth Southgate who made it clear that his squad will be out for victory on Thursday to build momentum ahead the knockout phase.
“Tomorrow we want to perform well but the priority is not to win,” Martinez told a pre-match press conference on Wednesday. “The reality is we put ourselves in this situation we wanted to qualify and we have done that.
“There are players with yellow cards and I don’t think it would be professional for us to put those players in a risk to miss the knockout phase.
“It is very important for us to protect and give every player the best possible programme to be in the best condition in the knockout game.” Martinez had earlier suggested he was prepared to make wholesale changes to his side and at the very least was expected to rest defender Jan Vertonghen, winger Thomas Meunier and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, who have all picked up a yellow card. A second yellow would mean they would be suspended for the round of 16 game.
He also added that striker, Romelu Lukaku, Belgium’s all-time leading scorer, could miss the game as he recovers from a knock suffered against Tunisia.
Martinez said goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois would play against England. The rest would be decided three hours before the whistle.
“I don’t think changing the goalkeeper is an option,” explained Martinez. “Thibaut Courtois has been at a very good level and I think it is positive for him to carry on playing so I can guarantee you he will start tomorrow.” While Martinez preferred to keep his cards close to his chest, the Belgium coach maintained his full confidence in every player on his bench, adding that each deserved an opportunity.
“I believe in every player on this squad so it would be quite stupid for me not to believe in these players for tomorrow,” declared Martinez.
“They have earned the right to start in a World Cup and I believe we are going to be as good as the contribution of the 23 players so tomorrow is a good opportunity for us as a team.”