An almost apathetic Belgium halted England’s claim for top spot in Group G thanks to a moment of brilliance from Adnan Januzaj that snatched first place and set up a last 16 meeting with Japan in Rostov.
Both sides made wholesale changes from their previous starting lineups; England manager Gareth Southgate brought in nine new faces from the side that ensured qualification with a 6-1 rout over Panama, including switching Marcus Rashford for skipper Harry Kane.
Belgium were also without their main goalscoring threat as Romelu Lukaku made way for Michy Batshuayi. A draw would have seen England advance having begun the day in top spot by virtue of having accumulated one fewer yellow card than Belgium in the fair play standings.
When play got underway, England showed a more compact 5-3-2 formation, with a combative Jamie Vardy dropping deep to a four-man midfield diamond. England’s back five included John Stones, Gary Cahill and Phil Jones, all three imposing center-backs capable of playing the ball from the back.
The first half passed without much incident, with fans counting the yellow card tally rather than the goal tally. Early on Vardy managed to force a low save from Courtois down to his right.
At the other end, England were left to clear the ball off the line when the ball squirmed free after Marouane Fellaini headed down to Batshuayi to force a goalmouth scramble.
Those totting bookings may have made a cynical judgment as to Belgium’s over-zealous tackling. Tielemans doubled the Belgian deficit not long after a Fellaini lunge on Loftus-Cheek went unpunished. A game against Colombia in Moscow awaited the runner-up, rather than a date with Japan in Rostov for the winners.
In the end, a moment of brilliance from a man who made his name in England separated the two teams. On 51 minutes Adnan Januzaj, once tipped as a possible England recruit through his time spent at Manchester United’s academy, eased his way past Danny Rose before unleashing a stunning left-footed strike that curled past Pickford.
As the 23-year-old wheeled away to celebrate, many may have missed Batshuayi’s own attempts to mark the goal – belting the ball off the post and into his own face, in what is sure to be a future ‘what happened next’ clip on a sports quiz show.
The goal seemed to galvanize England, Loftus-Cheek used his considerable presence to power his side forward, but found it hard to break down Belgium’s solid back line and they could ultimately not find a way into the game.
With the result, the cheers of “football’s coming home” may have been halted temporarily, but belief is still among England. For Belgium, they topped the group at a canter, and must surely fancy their chances against Japan in the knockout stages.