BITTERSWEET DEFEAT FOR SOUTHGATE’S SUBS
England finished second in Group G, losing 1-0 to Belgium in Kaliningrad. Both sides made wholesale changes for this bizarre dead-rubber, but it was England who landed on the easier side of the draw.
The Three Lions’ manager Gareth Southgate didn’t follow his midweek promises as he made eight changes for the final game of Group G. Only John Stones, Jordan Pickford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek retained their starting places from Sunday’s victory over Panama. The likes of Phil Jones, Marcus Rashford and young Trent Alexander-Arnold came in, as Eric Dier captained the side. Roberto Martinez made wholesale changes too, as Adnan Januzaj, Thorgen Hazard and Nacer Chadli all started for The Red Devils.
Belgium came closest during a tentative opening twenty minutes, as Monaco’s Youri Tielemans’ long shot forced Jordan Pickford into his first real save of the tournament. England were defending again not ten minutes later, with Adnan Januzaj providing his teammates another chance to take the lead. As Marouane Fellaini knocked the ball down, Michy Batshuayi stabbed the ball goalwards to trigger a real scramble. The ball popped out of Pickford’s arms, requiring Gary Cahill to steer the ball away from off the line. Loftus-Cheek and Cahill both headed wide from England corners, but an ultimately disappointing half would end 0-0.
John Stones was rested after the break, with Harry Maguire replacing the Manchester City man. England were sluggish in the opening exchanges following the interval, and when Januzaj led a manned Belgium attack early on, The Three Lions may have feared the worst. The former Manchester United and Sunderland man turned Danny Rose, before whipping the ball into the top left corner, beyond Jordan Pickford. It was no Jesse Lingard, but it was mighty close. The midfielder turned away to celebrate with his teammates. Belgium had a deserved lead.
England took a hold of the game after this, as Jamie Vardy, tireless as ever, put Marcus Rashford in, one-on-one with Thibault Courtois. United’s young striker opened up his body, before ultimately curling the ball wide to the right. It had looked harder to miss than score in truth. Substitute Danny Welbeck had a volley blocked well by Fellaini, as England endured their most productive period of the match.
There were chances for Belgium to wrap the game up late on, including another goal-line scramble. There was time for Pickford to make another good save, sprawling to his right to parry from substitute Dries Mertens’ piledriver from range.
The fulltime whistle blew in Kaliningrad’s Arena Baltika. Belgium top the group with three wins, as England finish in second. Roberto Martinez’s side now face Japan in the Round of 16 on Monday, whereas England will play Group H winners Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday. It’s The Three Lions that have arguably landed on the more manageable half of the draw, avoiding Portugal, Brazil, Uruguay, France and Argentina amongst others. But Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland are not naïve enough to underestimate their Tuesday opponents. Colombia knocked Luis Suarez’s Uruguay out at this stage last time out – they’re just as capable four years on. Harry Kane and co. won’t see their places as under threat given today’s drab performance. England completed Group G with defeat, 1-0, to Belgium.