ST PETERSBURG // An early goal, a late goal and the better team for the majority of what came between. Belgium produced a professionally perfect performance to beat England 2-0 in the third-place play-off in St Petersburg and ensure they leave the World Cup with a medal for the first time in the country’s history.
It speaks volumes that while Roberto Martinez’s side will leave Russia with tangible reward for their performances, it is Gareth Southgate’s England who are likely to be painted in a more positive light. Older and more experienced, Belgium are a few miles further down the development path than England; expectations understandably higher.
“OK, we are always sad to lose a semi-final, but what we have done just three days later to win this game is historical,” Belgium captain Eden Hazard said. “I hope the future will be even better than this.”
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Although only three of the 22 starters played outside the Premier League, the gulf in experience throughout the two teams’ spines was clear. Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin De Bruyne and Hazard have all won league titles.
In contrast, Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire were relegated from the Premier League in recent years and Eric Dier and Harry Kane have yet to win a medal of any sort with Tottenham Hotspur.
That was the challenge laid down by Southgate pre-match: take home a World Cup medal for the first time since the victorious England team of 1966. It may only have been bronze, but it would have provided a shiny piece of metal to quieten the naysayers arguing that Kane and Co had merely beaten four average teams ranked below their own 12th-place in the world rankings.
Instead, much like the moment Kane slipped while bearing down on Courtois’s goal midway through the first half, the chance went begging. When they arrive back in London on Sunday, their pockets will be filled with nothing but lint and the mobile phones from which they will inevitably post to social media their tournament conclusions.
“I am very proud of what we have done,” Southgate said. “We are under no illusions as to where we stand. We have finished in the top four, but we are not a top four team yet. Against the best teams we have come up short. We wanted to get get a medal here and we were all keen to finish on a high, but we have played a better team.”
That difference in quality was exposed inside four minutes when Danny Rose allowed Thomas Meunier to connect with Nacer Chadli’s cross and open the scoring with their first attack. It set the tone, with De Bruyne firing at Jordan Pickford after a defensive mix-up and Alderweireld hooking over after Youri Tielemans’ volley fell to him inside the area.
Southgate took action, withdrawing Rose and Sterling in place of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard at the interval, but while it gave England a more vertical attack line, it also enabled De Bruyne to grow in midfield prominence.
Twice in the space of 30 seconds, he split England’s defence with passes so delicious they deserved Michelin stars. From the second, Romelu Lukaku should have claimed his fifth of the tournament to move within a goal of top-scorer Kane.
Despite the let-off, England could not draw level, their best chance falling to Dier, who saw his chipped effort cleared off the line. And so it was left to Hazard to kill the tie — created, naturally, by De Bruyne.
Eight minutes from time, the Manchester City playmaker burst forward before picking out his captain, who evaded Phil Jones and calmly slotted past Jordan Pickford.
“The last game is always very important,” Martinez said. “Now we leave with a winning feeling, which the players deserve. To get a bronze medal is historical and will leave a long-lasting legacy for Belgium.”