Belgium secured third place at Russia 2018 after dominant 2-0 win over England. This result caps off the Red Devils’ best ever World Cup performance, with their previous highest finish being fourth (1986). For England, it meant that a World Cup that seemed to be coming home just last Wednesday frustratingly slipped away a they’re left to wait another four years to challenge for football’s greatest prize again.
Coming into the game, eyes were on the Golden Boot race with Lukaku and Kane facing each other with 4 and 6 goals respectively. It was like the 16/17 Premier League race for the Golden Boot reincarnated. Both strikers were expected to deliver.
Like England against Croatia on Wednesday, Belgium got off to a fast start with Thomas Meunier tapping in Nacer Chadli’s cross in the 4th minute. Meunier finished a remarkable build-up, with Hazard and Lukaku involved before Chadli’s ball into the box. This raised many debates about whether Belgium would’ve gotten past France in the semifinal had Meunier been eligible to play. Oh, the thoughts of what could have been.
Meunier is the 10th different player to score for the Red Devils at Russia 2018, which equals the World Cup record set by France in 1982 and Italy in 2006.
England came close to an equalizer midway into the half when Raheem Sterling fed Kane on the box of the box, but the usually-lethal striker dragged his shot wide. That wasn’t the Harry Kane we know. Belgium also a big chance to score, and they would have if it weren’t for the strong hands of Jordan Pickford as he palmed De Bruyne’s shot from inside the box. What a tournament he’s been having! I’m not quite sure how Everton will manage to keep him for next season. After 45 minutes, the teams went into the break with the Belgians up 1-0.
The second half delivered a little more exciting football than the first, with England bringing on Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to give them stronger attacking options. Lukaku had a chance to close the gap between him and Kane early in the half as De Bruyne put him 1v1 with Pickford, but his well-known heavy first touch let him down again. That made it two strikers in the spotlight fluffing their chances to settle the Golden Boot title. That, consequently, was his last opportunity of this World Cup as we soon substituted for Dries Mertens.
Lukaku’s departure meant that Hazard held the torch of the striker and he was phenomenal since. He tortured England’s defence with his quick movement, strong hold-up play and vision to spot team-mates. His agility forced John Stones to drag him back and take a yellow card for the team, and caused Fabian Delph to fully concentrate on cutting out his passes.
England almost had the chance to celebrate a goal for the day as Eric Dier went through on goal via Rashford’s pass, but was denied as his cheeky chip over Courtois was cleared off the line by his club-mate, Toby Alderweireld.
With Belgium’s speedy front three, there’s always danger when they’re running towards goal from a counter-attack and they almost scored the best team goal of the tournament, as they weaved their way through England with some silky passes but the finishing touch from Meunier was majestically saved by Pickford. That would’ve been a goal to cherish for decades. It’s what you’d implore your children to watch if you want them to get into into football. Pity it didn’t go in.
England’s World Cup balloon was officially popped when Hazard stuck darted past Phil Jones (as he did in last season’s FA Cup final) and buried the ball past Pickford’s near post. That was the Belgian captain’s third goal of the tournament and his 12th goal in his last 25 appearances. Not bad for a man criticized for disappearing in key games.
Belgium finished the game as 2-0 victors and created history as they earned their highest ever place in a World Cup tournament. Roberto Martinez, Thierry Henry, and the rest Belgium’s coaching staff were pleased to leave Russia with a bronze medal. It was a tangible commemoration of what they’ve achieved over the last four weeks. Belgium’s golden generation may have fallen a step short of World Cup glory, but their country will be extremely proud of their progress as a team between the last World Cup and this one.
For England, maybe their team were too young and inexperienced to claim World Cup glory in Russia. But Gareth Southgate (provided that he stays) will be looking forward to working with these players in the upcoming UEFA Nations League, where they’re in a group with Spain and Croatia, and EURO 2020 in the longer span of things. This English team is full of talented players but they need to be nurtured more by their respective clubs and refined by the national team. If the Premier League put more focus into developing English players, we’d definitely see the Three Lions back in the final four at Qatar 2022.
Image Credit: FIFA™