KALININGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - Belgium coach Roberto Martinez brushed aside any qualms about the seemingly tougher route to the World Cup final his team face after a 1-0 win over England that secured top spot in their last Group G match on Thursday.
“We need to go step-by-step, but I think that we can face anyone that we’ve got in front of us,” the Spaniard said after an Adnan Januzaj goal early in the second half handed the Belgians by far the more daunting half of the draw.
They play Japan in the last 16 with the winners of that tie facing a tricky quarter-final against Brazil or Mexico.
Facing questions over whether he might have preferred to finish second — a draw or defeat would have had that effect and some fans began to suspect that was the Belgian plan after a tame first half — Martinez said: “Honestly, I am delighted.”
Warming to a theme at this World Cup, he noted unpredictable narrow margins in the tournament that have sent defending champions Germany home and put 2014 runners-up Argentina into a second-round fight with 1998 champions France.
“Making predictions in the World Cup can be a little bit difficult,” Martinez said, insisting Belgium would concentrate on Monday’s meeting with Japan in Rostov-on-Don.
He did not mention that victory could see Belgium meeting five-times champions Brazil, who are starting to find some form.
France, Argentina and European champions Portugal also potentially lie in the way of Belgium’s latest “golden generation” reaching their nation’s first World Cup final.
“We are not looking at paths,” Martinez said. “For now, Japan is the only priority that we have.”
Gareth Southgate’s England by contrast face a difficult task in the next round against Colombia but are in the half of the draw in which the only other former champions are Spain.
For Martinez, the key thing was that his second-string team, including nine changes from the lineup that put a total of eight goals past Panama and Tunisia, had comfortably overcome a similarly experimental England side.
“We had an opportunity to show all the talent we have in the group,” he said. “Everyone in Belgium should be very proud.”
Martinez said that to overcome years of underachievement by a country blessed with an abundance of talent it was critical to forge a deep sense of team spirit across the whole squad and to have strength in depth for the knockout campaign.
“The so-called golden generation wasn’t playing today,” he said, after leaving the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne on the bench. Instead, youngsters like Youri Tielemans, 21, and Januzaj, 23, tested and stretched the England side.
He was also able to try out with success Thomas Vermaelen, the Barcelona defender out injured for over a month, and later in the game to give a run out to defensive talisman Vincent Kompany, who had also yet to play in Russia due to injury.
Martinez has now given all 20 outfield squad players a game in the World Cup so they all truly feel part of the campaign.
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Moscow; Editing by Ken Ferris