IT’S a phrase which entered the footballing lexicon some time ago and has stuck around with impressive stubbornness.

“We are taking it one game at a time,” is the vanilla answer fitba’ writers hear oh-so often when a player is asked to talk about a game a whole week away when there so happens to be a fixture before the far more interesting one which would, hopefully, make for better copy.

The answer can get boring by the 150th time; however, it’s nonetheless absolutely the correct attitude to have. Football, as in life, is better served when you don’t look too far ahead when a pressing matter stands right in front of you.

We shall soon find out whether Gareth Southgate, by looking ahead, has got the biggest decision of his career right.

He didn’t throw the game against Belgium but the England manager clearly was some way from being upset at finishing second because it gave his team, which had already secured qualification, the “easier” half of the draw.

Belgian’s reserves tried to win the match on Thursday night - and emerged victorious. The English players didn’t seem that bothered about finding an equaliser which, because of the Fair Play rule, would have seen them finish top of Group F.

Before the match, both Southgate and Roberto Martinez, Belgium’s head coach, knew who lay in wait for them in the last 16.

For the group winners it was Japan, a lovely football team to watch but hardly one of the great forces of world football. You would take them in a heartbeat from the final 15 countries left in the tournament. It’s still no walkover.

The runners-up got Columbia, a strong side with a few of their players at least touching world class status, James Rodriguez if he’s fit and Radamel Falcao. They won’t fear England and nor should they.

But if the grand plan was to finish second and avoid Brazil, maybe, in the quarter-finals then it might just be the most hubristic tactic the beautiful game has ever witnessed.

Let’s say England beat Columbia next Tuesday in Moscow. It would then be either Sweden or Switzerland in the quarters. England have a long history of struggling against the Swedes who topped a group which had Germany, albeit a poor team, while Switzerland drew with Brazil, now installed as favourites.

The English needed a last-minute goal to beat Tunisia and Panama were the worst team in the competition. Their record in knock-out competitions since 1990 is actually quite poor. They have beaten only Denmark, 2002, and Ecuador four years later in regular time.

This easier route should only be contemplated, if at all, by teams with a recent history of going deep into tournaments and that has not been England for some time.

One English newspaper printed a back page picture of a pointing Gareth Southgate with the headline: “This way to the final.” It’s a bit of fun and I am sure there was some tongue in cheek there. But there are some who believe this, backed up by zero evidence.

Southgate should have fielded a much stronger team against Belgium, minus one or two who could have done with a rest, won the game – at least gone for the draw – taken Japan next and if it is Brazil or Mexico in the last eight then so be it.

This is the World Cup. You are going to play against good and great teams. There isn’t an easy way to get to the latter stages. No game is easy. You don’t get a plucky non-league side in this knock-out tournament.

Gary Neville, on television, spoke openly about a possible semi-final, which England haven’t reached for 28 years, after a defeat, that’s a defeat, to a second string Belgian team thanks to a goal from Adnan Januzaj who was last seen in England not doing very much with a truly woeful Sunderland team which was relegated.

Colombia boast players from Barcelona, Juventus, AC Milan and Bayern Munich. If England win then it would be their biggest result in 12 years. That, incidentally, could well happen.

But it does feel that Southgate has made a bigger misstep than the one he took while jogging last week which put his arm in a sling.

One game at a time, Gareth. One game at a time.