TESTING END TO A BREAKTHROUGH TOURNAMENT
Belgium claimed third place with their second victory over England this summer. England did well to keep the score down, despite actually dominating The Red Devils in every area besides the scoreline.
Both sides fielded strong line-ups for this one, in contrast to how the Bronze Medal match is usually played. Belgium made just two changes, including a return for the previously suspended right-back Thomas Meunier. England’s line-up included just three players that didn’t feature at all in Wednesday’s semi-final, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fabian Delph and Phil Jones all handed rare starts. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling retained their places as England’s starting strikers.
Third place play-offs are rarely boring affairs, and a dreadful start from Gareth Southgate’s men handed Belgium the opening goal inside four minutes. Romelu Lukaku had the presence of mind to pick out West Brom’s Nacer Chadli on the left-wing with a lovely pass. The winger took one look to the box, before crossing for PSG’s Meunier. The full-back is such a goal-threat that he actually scored a hat-trick in the qualifiers for this World Cup. He showed this class again here, getting beyond a lackadaisical Danny Rose. Meunier shinned the ball past Jordan Pickford for 1-0. It could be a long afternoon for England. Belgium kept the pressure on, and Pickford did well to save a deflected shot from Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne.
England grew into the game as the minutes ticked on, and Fabian Delph’s scuffed effort was followed by a nice glanced effort from Loftus-Cheek. The Three Lions were putting shots on target. Harry Maguire won yet another header from a corner in this World Cup, but Thibault Courtois gathered easily. A miss-taken Belgium corner somehow found its way to Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld. The centre-back swivelled like a striker and volleyed well – just over. Jordan Pickford lay on the ground with his head in his hands; England really were clinging on. A wonderful pass from Eric Dier was taken down well by Sterling minutes later for England. The City man knocked down well for Harry Kane, but the Spurs man just hasn’t looked himself in the knockout stage. He dug his volley into the ground and it bounced just wide. At the halfway point, Belgium had been in control, and led 1-0.
Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard replaced Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose for England at the break. The Three Lions needed that extra man in the attack. But the first ten minutes of the second half brought a hattrick of changes for Eric Dier. First he was denied from range by Courtois, before a smart one-two with Ruben Loftus-Cheek put him through on goal. He dinked the ball deftly over Courtois, only for his Tottenham teammate Alderweireld to clear superbly from on the line. It was the closest England had come to a, now potentially justified, equaliser. The central midfielder’s final chance was a wide downward header, following positive interplay between Kieran Trippier and Jesse Lingard. England were enjoying a productive twenty-minutes, but it ended without reward when Harry Maguire headed wide from the last in a long line of England set pieces.
Belgium regained their composure and turned an England corner into a goal opportunity at the other end with a scintillating counter-attack. Backheels, flicks and unstoppable dribbling were all involved in the lead up to Meunier’s second clear chance of the game. The right-back volleyed powerfully at goal, but Pickford parried brilliantly to deny the PSG man a second goal of the game. But Belgium had one more meaningful attack left in them. De Bruyne played Eden Hazard in on goal. Phil Jones’ decision to try and cut the ball out left the Chelsea attacker able to run one-on-one at Everton’s Pickford. Hazard stuck the ball beyond Pickford’s foot at the front post and ran off with his teammates to celebrate a now wrapped-up third-place finish.
Gareth Southgate’s England have reignited the interest in international football back home. This World Cup has truly been a ground-breaking one for England, even if it hasn’t gifted the nation its second star above the badge. The Three Lions have scored more goals this summer than in any previous tournament, and achieved their joint-best finish to a World Cup on foreign soil. The future is promising for Southgate’s young lions, but they failed to finish third here, with a 2-0 defeat to Belgium in St Petersburg.