Belgium coach Marc Wilmots was happy to encourage speculation that Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku would be dropped for Saturday’s 3-0 win over Ireland at Euro 2016 in which both not only played but were key performers.
De Bruyne himself did nothing to discourage suggestions he would be replaced for their second Group E match after a poor performance in the opening 2-0 loss to Italy.
“I bluffed,” Wilmots told reporters. “But the players were aware of it. Our lineup was the right lineup today.”
Like Antonio Conte, coach of group winners Italy, Wilmots has been the subject of media criticism, which he now feels he has rebutted.
“After four years of success, when we get criticism it’s like those last four years disappear,” he said.
“It’s just giving people the wrong ideas. I live with criticism. Apart from death I don’t know what else would really affect me.
“I enjoy my job and I hope the country’s proud of us. I want to be with positive people.”
Belgium, now two points ahead of their final group opponents Sweden, need only avoid defeat in Wednesday’s game to reach the knockout stage.
“We’re not yet qualified,” Wilmots added. “We have a difficult game to play against Sweden and it’s like a final. Anything could happen.”
He had special praise for Lukaku, the scorer of the first and third goals either side of Axel Witsel’s header.
“With Romelu Lukaku we wanted to give somebody some confidence,” he said.
“He played a great game. When he missed one opportunity against Italy, people were saying it’s all different. I just needed to make sure I trusted him.
“He did what I expected today. I prefer he runs hard for 70 minutes and then I can make a substitution.”
There was satisfaction all round from a Belgium camp that has sometimes been regarded as divided, not least because of its three different languages.
“Criticism is a part of football and we’ve accepted the criticism,” said man of the match Axel Witsel. “We need to have the mentality we had today for our future matches.”
Lukaku added: “The Italy game was disappointing but today we played well all over the pitch”.
De Bruyne described the result as “part one of two”, adding, “we were under pressure before today and we came out with the right response”.