It was a contest no one had relished: the penultimate fixture of the World Cup; the second meeting between Belgium and England in Russia (possibly sending out their second-string sides); the not-very-highly-anticipated sequel to their final group stage encounter. More often than not seen as an unwanted affair, this one did prove to be competitive at times. There were changes made by managers of both teams, but the determination to win was evident, and that made for an entertaining play-off in St Petersburg.
- Belgium were off to a flying start. With just four minutes gone, Romelu Lukaku sliced open the England defence with a pass to find Nacer Chadli, who then whipped in a cross into the area from the right. Thomas Meunier poked home from six yards after sliding in ahead of Danny Rose, the holes in the Tottenham defender’s socks serving as a visual metaphor for gaps in the Three Lions’ midfield and defence.
- There were fleeting flashes of danger from England – the best when Ruben Loftus-Cheek headed straight at Thibaut Courtois from Kieran Trippier’s cross and Harry Kane fired wide after being set up by Raheem Sterling.
- Roberto Martínez’s side led at the break, and deservedly so, although the margin could have been more than a solitary goal had they been sharper in the final third.
- England looked brighter in the second half, changing formation and bringing on Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. The latter flashed a shot across goal shortly after the restart but Kane, at full stretch, couldn’t quite get on the end of it.
- At the hour mark, Lukaku was taken off for Dries Mertens. The Manchester United forward, with four goals to his name at this tournament, was let down by his heavy touch today, missing two chances to score and leaving Kane – who probably should have been substituted as well – in pole position to win the Golden Boot.
- There were chances to level the score when Eric Dier delicately dinked the ball over the advancing Courtois but was denied by Spurs teammate Toby Alderweireld, who, somehow, cleared it off the line, while Harry Maguire also headed wide from a promising position.
- Ten minutes from time, Jordan Pickford – who has been excellent throughout this tournament – pulled off a stunning save to deny Meunier his second after Mertens and Kevin De Bruyne led the swift counter.
- Shortly after, there was more of the superb build-up play which was rounded off when the Manchester City midfielder played a perfectly-weighted pass through to Eden Hazard, who surged into the box to drill a powerful shot into the bottom corner and seal the win.
- Belgium’s golden generation earned themselves a medal, although the colour did not match their moniker. Nonetheless, they were delighted and rightly so. After a strong campaign during which they won six of their seven matches and secured their best-ever World Cup finish, there is every chance Martínez’s team will get stronger from here with this outstanding squad at their disposal.
- England looked slightly jaded after their extra-time defeat against Croatia, but their attitude was commendable. Gareth Southgate’s young squad refused to go out with a whimper after conceding early, and seized back initiative after the interval.
- In addition to surpassing all reasonable pre-tournament expectations, they have also equalled England’s highest World Cup finish on foreign soil. They do not have medals to take back home with them, but there are many, many abiding memories, a bright future, and a country’s rekindled affection for their national team.
- John Stones has proved his admirers right, enjoying a magnificent World Cup and ending it with a flawless performance, complete with a perfect tackle. His abilities and style of play will be integral to Southgate’s future plans.
- De Bruyne and Hazard ran the show against England – but perhaps that comes as no surprise. The Chelsea forward has been involved in seven World Cup goals for Belgium, while his teammate dominated the centre of the field, taking full advantage of the freedom afforded to him.
- With Kane set to collect the Golden Boot (unless Antoine Griezmann or Kylian Mbappé produce something remarkable), the other individual prize up for grabs is Player of the Tournament. It is conventionally awarded to a player who contests in the final, but Hazard’s consistent brilliance merits a mention among the contenders.
- With only three players out of the 22 starters not plying their trade in England, there was a Premier League element to this match. With every England player and eight Belgians representing clubs from the English top flight, only Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), and Youri Tielemans (Monaco) play for teams from outside the Premier League.
- Ultimately, the two teams ended their respective World Cup campaigns having done enough to be proud of themselves. In saying that, there is also a feeling that they will wonder if they might have deserved more, and about what might have been.
Goal of the Day
Belgium were still leading at that point, but it was Hazard’s goal that won them the game and the bronze medal. After De Bruyne took flight, the striker ran past Phil Jones in the same way like he did in the FA Cup final in May, and slotted in. Pickford, who had denied Meunier just minutes earlier, was beaten this time, and so were England.