HAVE England helped or hindered their World Cup prospects by losing to Belgium in a run out of shadow teams in Kaliningrad on Thursday night? You can argue this one until the cows come home.

On the one hand, finishing second in the group sets up a slightly harder round of 16 game against Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday. But should they successfully negotiate it, the rewards are clear. That half of the draw is undoubtedly the one any manager would choose to be part of.

Belgium, by winning the game, and the section, will fancy their chances of taking care of Japan. However, there is a strong possibility Brazil will await them in the quarter-finals. They may well regret beating England, so the theory goes.

I always think it’s crazy to look too far ahead. This is particularly true with England, who, let’s not forget, have won precisely two knockout stage matches at the World Cup since beating Cameroon in 1990.

Gareth Southgate made a decision to rest eight players on Thursday night. You can hardly blame him for leaving out Kyle Walker, who was on a yellow card, although he did field Ruben Loftus-Cheek who was similarly burdened with a previous caution. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez went even further, omitting nine from his side.

The game was instantly forgettable. It was always likely to be that way with that many changes in the starting XIs. Given the multitude of players lacking game rhythm, what we got was a lot of standing around and precious little quality. The exception was a classy and ultimately decisive moment from former Manchester United wunderkind Adnan Januzaj.

England looked coherent and sparky in their win over Panama and excelled for long periods in the opener against Tunisia. Granted, these were two of the weakest teams in the competition but victories build confidence and harmony. Have they killed some of their own momentum?

I have watched Colombia a lot and always thought there was a reasonable chance England could be on a collision course with los cafeteros. There is a lot of technical quality within the side and a number of highly-talented free spirits. James Rodriguez stamped his authority on the 2014 World Cup scoring six goals but there are doubts over his fitness for Tuesday’s match at the Spartak Stadium. There can be no denying his absence would be a huge blow to Colombia and a massive boost to English hopes.

But this is a team full of ball players, from the lightning fast Juan Cuadrado to the favourite of many a Colombia fan, Juan Quintero. He would be popular with many Scottish fans too, for his “tanner baw” style. Radamel Falcao must always be watched, while Carlos Sanchez provides energy and impetus from midfield.

I do think there is a glass jaw quality to Colombia’s defence, especially on the left-hand side. First choice left-back Frank Fabra tore his cruciate just before the tournament and his replacement, Johan Mojica, is not of the same calibre. Look for Kieran Trippier and perhaps Ruben Loftus-Cheek to load up on him.

The centre-backs, Yerry Mina and Tottenham’s Davinson Sanchez, are competent, but as a group they are prone to making errors when put under pressure. David Ospina has been the automatic choice in goal for years despite his reserve status at Arsenal.

No one from the England second string made a convincing case for themselves against Belgium. Jordan Pickford looked jittery and he has yet to be tested on a sustained basis. That situation is likely to change in Moscow.

England must almost pretend the Belgium experience didn’t happen. Luckily with the personnel reverting to something closer to the teams that beat Tunisia and Panama, there is scope to mentally take this step.

The back three pick themselves. A big decision will be whether or not to include a second defensive midfielder in Eric Dier alongside Jordan Henderson. Or does Gareth Southgate risk it with two more creative players? It was fine against Panama and Tunisia but Colombia are on a different plane ability wise. Much will depend on the fitness of Dele Alli, who has missed the last two matches with a thigh injury.

I would be inclined to go back to Raheem Sterling off the front, after Marcus Rashford’s lacklustre showing. But when it comes down to it, England have the biggest asset of them all in captain and talisman, Harry Kane.

I’M in Moscow today for the first time since the tournament started. Russia’s national team, to the surprise of a few, contributed mightily to the storyline in the first week, with emphatic wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

But those successes read a bit like England’s initial victories. They were playing two pretty poor sides. Still, coach Stanislav Cherchesov deserves credit for having his team ready. Being host nation can weigh heavily on any group of players.

Having said that, Russia got their comeuppance against a ruthlessly efficient Uruguay. Now they run into Spain, who for all their poise and passing patience, have not been completely convincing. There are defensive and structural deficiencies which must be addressed.

With Koke likely to return to the side at the Luzhniki Stadium today, Spain are sending a message that a certain muscularity will be required in addition to all the grace and style.

It would be hard to predict anything other than the end of the Russian story at this World Cup, although I well remember being in Gwangju in 2002 when co-hosts South Korea best Spain on penalties. There will be plenty of fervour from the home fans and this might be closer than it might look on paper.

Croatia are favourites to overcome Denmark in the late game in Nizhny Novgorod and with good reason. They have been excellent up to this point.

But my mind goes back to Euro 2016 when they had been similarly lauded, having just beaten Spain in the group stage. They were expected to eliminate a Portugal side who had under whelmed. In the event, Croatia did little and were dumped out thanks to a goal late in extra time from Ricardo Quaresma.

What has gone before, counts for little now. In the knockout stages of the World Cup, you win or you die, there is no middle ground.