Manager Gareth Southgate believes it would be “dangerous territory” for England to attempt to plot a favourable World Cup path, especially having seen their last major tournament end in humiliation against unfancied Iceland.
The Three Lions sealed progress to the last 16 with a match to spare after following up their last-gasp 2-1 win against Tunisia by annihilating Panama 6-1 in Nizhny Novgorod.
Belgium also qualified as a result of England’s win on Sunday, leaving Group G finely poised ahead of the pair’s meeting in Kaliningrad on Thursday.
Level on points, goal difference and goals scored, fair play may end up deciding who finishes top – a position Belgium are said to be keen to avoid.
The runners-up could well find a simpler route to the latter stages of the World Cup, but Southgate is wary of adopting that mentality with the Euro 2016 embarrassment against Iceland fresh in his mind.
“For our country, that would be a very difficult mindset to have,” said the England boss.
“We want to win every game of football we go into. I don’t know how we would go into a game not wanting to win and not wanting to play well.
“So, I think that’s dangerous territory...if we start trying to plot and predict where we might end up.
“We had a really favourable draw, we all thought, in the last tournament and it didn’t work out that way.
“I think we just have to keep playing as well as we can, keep preparing the team the right way, keep the momentum and I have to keep the squad involved. That’s the one thing I think is really important.”
Two years ago then England manager Roy Hodgson failed to strike the balance between momentum and rotation in France, where his much-changed side stuttered to a goalless draw against Slovakia and ended their group in second.
Southgate would love to head into the knockout phase with a 100 per cent record, but keeping the squad happy and energy levels up will also be key against Belgium.
He continued: “We have to consider everything.
“I felt it was important for (Jamie) Vardy, (Fabian) Delph and (Danny) Rose, who have trained so well and been such an important part of the group as more senior players [to get on as substitutes against Panama].
“There were four or five others I’d have liked to get on the pitch for that same reason. Balancing that with a couple of the younger ones was a difficult decision.
“I’ve got to think through all of those things, competition for places, players who need match minutes and keeping the unity of the squad.”
Southgate will need to decide whether Dele Alli is worth risking after missing the Panama win with a slight thigh strain, and how best to deal with his star players.
Picking England captain Harry Kane is one of the decisions Southgate must make after his hat-trick on Sunday took him to five goals and top of the Golden Boot rankings.
“Obviously it will be very important for Harry, so I always have to balance what’s right for the squad as well,” Southgate said.
“He’s sitting really proudly at the top. He’s gone ahead of some major, major names in English football history in terms of World Cup goals.
“That should make him incredibly proud, but he also knows the team is the most important thing and we have to make decisions that are right for the team.”
Teetotal Kane passed on the post-match beers Southgate allowed his players to enjoy on Sunday’s flight back to St Petersburg, where focus on Belgium began yesterday morning.
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez has spoken of his intention to rotate for the Red Devils’ final Group G match, but the calibre of players at his disposal means this is a chance for England to lay down another marker.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve played all the top teams,” Southgate said.
“We haven’t been able to beat any of these teams yet. We know the level the likes of France and Brazil and Spain are capable of hitting.
“We all know the quality of the Belgium squad and the individuals they have.
“But we think we can be competitive in all those games – and let’s see.
“We are improving and I think the lads are gaining belief in what we are doing and confidence from their performances.
“I’ve said all along I don’t want to limit what they feel is possible and that’s still how I feel.”
Southgate heaped praise on strikers coach Allan Russell for helping England prosper from dead-ball situations during a fine start to the World Cup.
Five out of their eight goals in Russia have come as a result of set-plays that have helped propel the side into the next round.
“If anything, Allan is spending more time on those,” Southgate said. “We’ve identified that as a key area in tournaments and it’s a key area we felt we could improve upon.
“In the most simple terms it helps if you have got outstanding delivery and people that want to go and head the thing. You know, at the moment we’ve got that.”