Belgium clinched their best-ever World Cup finish of 3rd place at the Russia 2018 tournament with a 2-0 win over a less than emphatic England side in St. Petersburg on Saturday.
Belgium eased to a 2-0 win against an England side lacking any firepower in St. Petersburg Stadium, netting two goals in the first ten and last ten minutes from Thomas Meunier and captain Eden Hazard respectively, both of whom benefited greatly from the sublime Kevin De Bruyne in central midfield.
For England it was a repeat of 28 years previously as they failed to better their fourth place finish at Italia ‘90, which ominously also followed a semifinal loss after normal time. With the defeat, Gareth Southgate’s men also let slip the chance to record a best World Cup finish since they won the competition in 1966.
Southgate, whose name had been murmured as a possible candidate to be seen on the Queen’s birthday honors list, made wholesale changes to the side that lost to Croatia three days ago, perhaps understandable for a side needing to recover from a draining and at times exasperating match.
That meant for the second time in the tournament, a weakened England side would meet Belgium and this time, there would be no revenge, just a repeat of the Group G defeat in Kaliningrad. Neither side would have wanted to play in this game, but neither would have wanted to lose either.
When the ‘bronze medal’ game got underway, it was Belgium who began the brightest in their screamingly yellow shirts. They found a way through after Kevin De Bruyne, pivotal from the center of the field even from the first moments of the game, found Nacer Chadli on the left wing, who crossed for Thomas Meunier to sneak in and slot home from close range. Defender Danny Rose will rewatch clips of the opener and certainly feel he could have done better with the marking.
Throughout much of the first half it was a story of half-chances and spurned opportunities. When Romelu Lukaku, who had started the day within touching distance of Harry Kane’s top scorer status, found De Bruyne, the midfield man wasted the shot and Jordan Pickford in goal palmed away his placed effort after the ball took a deflection.
For England, a soft shot from Fabian Delph and a blocked effort from the much maligned Raheem Sterling was about as close as they came. Belgium kept up the pressure when De Bruyne turned provider for Lukaku, who spurned a beautiful pass with a heavy first touch which allowed Pickford to gather.
Kane’s chance to pull away in the Golden Boot race came when the striker had time on the edge of the area from a Sterling assist, but the Tottenham man, looking a little fatigued since his early tournament heroics, made a hash of the strike and dragged well wide from the edge of the box at full stretch.
The sharp sound of the referee’s whistle to signal the end of the first 45 was eagerly followed by boos and whistles from the crowd - most likely from frustrated England fans - which serenaded the players as they departed the pitch at St. Petersburg Stadium.
After the restart England seemed to have sensed some urgency, evident when Kieran Trippier, the man with a whimsical right foot, delivered a dangerous ball into the area which was eventually cleared comfortably by defender Jan Vertonghen.
As time wore on in the second half, Harry Kane’s status as tournament top scorer looked almost comical as the player had a sniff neither of goal nor of any real service. But when substitute Jesse Lingard flashed a ball across goal, skipper Kane offered no concrete threat to turn it goalwards.
At the other end, Lukaku again wasted a moment of brilliance from De Bruyne, finding himself onside and in the England penalty area but the Belgian number 9 was unable to tame the exquisite through-ball. It was to be the last meaningful action for the striker, who was brought off just after the hour mark
Although time seemed to abjectly ebb away for England, there was some flashes of hope, which turned to agony for the Three Lions when Eric Dier was played through on goal by Marcus Rashford. With the sizeable frame of returning Belgian Vincent Kompany stretching, Dier lifted the ball over Thibaut Courtois, only for Toby Alderweireld to slide in and clear off the line.
Moments later and Belgium broke from an England attack, again De Bruyne instrumental in the counter, feeding Dries Mertens who lifted the ball beautifully over to Meunier. The goalscorer unleashed a first-time stinging volley across goal from the edge of the area, which was dramatically beaten to safety by Pickford.
As the game entered its final ten minutes De Bruyne, like a matador delivering the final dagger in a wounded bull’s back, showed great vision to set free captain Eden Hazard and simultaneously turn Phil Jones inside out. Chelsea man Hazard showed great balance to steady and power a low strike into Pickford’s near post and put a drab game beyond any real doubt in the 82nd minute of the game.
And that was how the game stayed. Belgium and Roberto Martinez had made history as the most successful Belgian side at a World Cup, who go one better than their 4-2 loss to France in 1986 in the bronze playoff, and go some way to justifying their ever-present status as the golden generation.