Belgium put two unanswered goals past England in the World Cup’s third-place game at Kretovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg on Saturday to achieve its best-ever finish at World Cup level. The Belgians grabbed an immediate lead through Thomas Meunier who netted the go-ahead goal inside the match’s first five minutes, before doubling their lead in the game’s final stretch through a late Eden Hazard strike.
The opening goal came in just the fourth minute of play when Romelu Lukaku fed Nacer Chadli who crossed the ball in from a wide position for Meunier, who blasted a shot past England keeper Jordan Pickford to give Belgium the lead.
You have to feel for Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who excelled in his country's Round of 16 match despite suffering a penalty shootout defeat to Croatia.
That match, on July 1, should forever become known as the Battle of Novgorod — yet the battle was really contested by only two men, the goalkeepers, who provided the last line of defence in a sudden death scenario that determined the fate of both nations.
Schmeichel lived up to his iconic surname, summoning his father's shield-like gloves to beat out an extra-time penalty from Luka Modric, before shootout saves against Milan Badelj and Josip Pivarić.
(Photo by Gokhan Balci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
21. Uruguay defender José Giménez — 7.52.
José Giménez is one of this list's highest-ranked defenders for good reason.
When Uruguay squeaked past Egypt with a 1-0 victory on June 15 it was an end-to-end performance from Giménez that stole the show.
Giménez was inpenetrable at the back, and ferocious up front. He attempted four tackles, eight clearances, and nine interceptions — a defensive contribution every 4.2 minutes. Oh, and he scored the game's only goal, too.
Since then he has continued to excel, helping Uruguay defeat Saudi Arabia and Portugal, before eventually getting bested by France.
(Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
20. Sweden defender Andreas Granqvist — 7.54.
Sweden centre back and captain Andreas Granqvist shone in his country's slim 1-0 win over South Korea on June 18.
The 33-year-old plays his club soccer for Russian Premier League side FC Krasnodar and, as he needed no time to acclimatise to the country, he was able to hit the ground running with a number of stunning displays.
Granqvist retained possession well, made eight defensive contributions, and even scored the game's only goal — a penalty kick awarded by the Video Assistant Referee.
In four 2018 World Cup games, Granqvist helped Sweden keep three clean sheets — but was unable to add a fourth when his country lost to England 2-0 on July 7.
(Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
19. Croatia striker Mario Mandžukić — 7.59.
It is no exaggeration to say Mario Mandžukić has gotten better with every World Cup game so far.
In the 3-0 win over Argentina, Mandžukić was outshone by midfield maestros Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
But against Denmark in the Round of 16 and Russia in the quarterfinal, he wrote his own headlines by scoring the only goal in the shootout victory over the Danes, and providing the only Croatia assist in the shootout win over the home nation Russia.
Now that he has found his feet, England better beware, as the two nations contest a crucial semifinal clash on Wednesday.
(Photo by Andrew Surma/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
=17. South Korea goalkeeper Cho Hyun-Woo — 7.6.
Imagine the rollercoaster Cho Hyun-Woo has been on.
His form at the 2018 World Cup in Russia will have done him no harm as he was South Korea's most consistent player throughout the tournament.
(Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
=17. Brazil midfielder Philippe Coutinho — 7.6.
Philippe Coutinho is quickly turning into one of Brazil's top performers — and could eventually be the main man.
In Russia, the creative midfielder provided two assists and scored two goals, looking particularly lethal in the wins over Serbia and Costa Rica.
(Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)
=15. France forward Kylian Mbappé — 7.61.
While this tournament has waved goodbye to world-renowned superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, it has said "oh la la" to Kylian Mbappé.
The France phenom has shown blistering pace since his days at AS Monaco and has shown extraordinary predatory instincts at Paris Saint-Germain.
Now he has reintroduced "va va voom" to the world and is fully living up to his status as the country's next Thierry Henry.
Mbappé may well be the most dangerous player left at the World Cup — and he is still a teenager.
(Photo by Mao Jianjun/China News Service/VCG)
=15. Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitić — 7.61.
So many goals have been scored from set-plays at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, so only fools would concede fouls against Croatia.
Because up those red and white chequered sleeves there lies a skilled set-piece taker in Ivan Rakitić, who rattled the crossbar in his country's 3-0 win over Argentina on June 21.
He's also a threat from open play, as his tap-in on the same day will testify.
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
14. Brazil midfielder Casemiro — 7.66.
Neymar may well be the headline-magnet, but Casemiro quietly goes about his business in an extraordinarily efficient manner.
At the 2018 World Cup, the midfielder excelled against Costa Rica and Mexico and does a remarkable job of protecting his country's defenders.
Casemiro attempted one block, six interceptions, 12 clearances and 17 tackles in his four appearances in the tournament, but did not feature in the team's 2-1 loss to Belgium.
Had Casemiro not been suspended, he may have been able to do something about the negative scoreline.
(Photo by Lukasz Laskowski/PressFocus/MB Media/Getty Images)
13. Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku — 7.68.
Romelu Lukaku epitomised the saying "If at first, you don't succeed, try, try, and try again" in Belgium's match against Panama on Monday.
Despite his impressive physical strength, Lukaku was outmuscled and outhustled by Panama's centre backs. His first touch was often poor, his passing was errant, and he hardly ever seemed to be in the game.
But then he scored. Twice. And all of that was forgiven.
When opponents allow Lukaku room to operate in the penalty box then he will cause havoc — just like he did against Tunisia when he scored, twice, on June 23.
Bilić even said Modrić "has been the best player and most complete player" in the whole tournament.
Aside from a penalty kick miss against Denmark, a shot where he appeared to completely lose his nerve, it is easy to see Bilić's point.
In five World Cup outings this summer, Modrić averages 68 passes per game and has an 86% pass completion rate. He has also contributed 14 goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates, provided one assist, and scored twice.
England's work will be cut out in nullifying Modrić in the second semifinal match on Wednesday — but there are ways of keeping him quiet. Just ask Denmark.
(Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
8. Belgium midfielder Kevin de Bruyne — 7.79.
Kevin de Bruyne has proven himself to be a valuable part of Belgium's golden generation.
The midfielder has played in four 2018 World Cup games so far, and has been a reliable and consistent performer in the middle of the park.
De Bruyne was particularly useful in the 3-0 win over Panama on June 18, providing one assist and putting together an impressive 73 passes.
His pass selection led to five goal-scoring opportunities for his team in the 5-2 victory over Tunisia, and four goal-scoring opportunities in the 3-2 win over Japan. Even Brazil was unable to keep de Bruyne quiet as the midfielder scored one of the team's vital goals in the 2-1 win on July 6.
If England stifles de Bruyne on Wednesday, it is likely it stifles Belgium, too.
(Photo by Ilnar Tukhbatov/Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images)
7. Argentina forward Lionel Messi — 7.87.
The sight of Lionel Messi moping around the pitch during Argentina's 3-0 loss to Croatia was bizarre, to say the least.
Even Messi's former teammate Pablo Zabaleta said the forward was "stressed, unhappy, and treated like a loser" by fans in his own country.
But then things changed.
Messi played a key goalscoring role in Argentina's 2-1 win over Nigeria, and provided two assists in the back-and-forth World Cup classic that broke out in the 4-3 loss to France.
(Photo credit should read ROMAN KRUCHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
6. England midfielder Kieran Trippier — 8.04.
England got its opening World Cup match off to a winning start when it beat Tunisia 2-1 in Group G.
Really, it was a result the country may not have achieved at any period in the last 10 or 15 years, so it is testament to this team's grit that it was able to get the job done.
England midfielder Kieran Trippier was the most reliable creative presence in that game as the 27-year-old pulled most of the strings with three dribbles, six goalscoring opportunities, and seven crosses.
Trippier then followed that up with another vintage display in the 6-1 pummeling of Panama, as he connected with 88% of his passes, created a goal-scoring opportunity, and even provided an assist.
Trippier was also awesome against Colombia and Sweden, and at this rate he should be one of the first names on manager Gareth Southgate's teamsheet.
(Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
=4. Brazil forward Neymar — 8.25.
Neymar, the most expensive soccer player of all time, had a target on his back at the 2018 World Cup — and you only need to look at the game against Switzerland on June 17 for the evidence.
Despite the onslaught, Neymar was still able to work some of his magic and even cast a spell on Costa Rica, adding another goal to his World Cup haul.
Neymar was, statistically-speaking at least, Brazil's most impressive player up until its exit at the hands, and feet, of Belgium in the quarterfinal, but the most enduring Neymar image will likely be him thrashing around on the floor — an image a British MP even ridiculed as clownish.
(Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)
=4. England striker Harry Kane — 8.25.
Oh boy. Harry Kane.
Count him out at your peril and he will continue to make the doubters look foolish, as the striker struck twice in England's opening World Cup game against Tunisia.
As everybody knows, the only way you better a two-goal display is by scoring three, and Kane netted a hat-trick in England's relentless 6-1 win against Panama on June 24.
Kane displays elite hold-up play and continues to show he is calm under the most pressured of situations. Kane scored from the spot in England's 1-1 draw with Colombia on Tuesday, and got his country off on the right foot by scoring the first in the country's first ever successful World Cup shootout.
Kane is England's captain and is leading by example — a leader the country has been craving for years. Still, it remains to be seen whether the goalscorer will stop at six. At this rate, he will be gunning for one or two more against Croatia in his team's semifinal match on Wednesday.
(Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
3. Spain midfielder Isco — 8.29.
Where there was once Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, there is now Isco — a player Spain can build around in years to come, after it failed to deliver at the 2018 World Cup.
Isco averaged a phenomenal 111 passes per game, completed 91.4% of them, and provided 10 goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates in four World Cup outings this summer.
(Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
2. Colombia defender Yerry Mina — 8.35.
Yerry Mina has had a hell of a tournament.
The defender made his first 2018 World Cup appearance against Poland on June 24 and his introduction to the tournament proved to be inspired from Colombia boss José Pékerman.
This is because Mina scored the first goal that sent Colombia on its way toward a resounding 3-0 win.
Mina continued his hot streak on Tuesday, breaking England's hearts with a 94th-minute equaliser that pushed the Round of 16 game into extra time.
In the end, Colombia lost the penalty shootout, but Mina can hold his head up high.
(Photo by YURI CORTEZ / AFP)
1. Belgium attacker Eden Hazard — 8.56.
Eden Hazard was at his best when he took the ball, hogged it all to himself, then ran at full pace against Panama's defence on June 18.
The Belgium forward's close control, together with his dribbling ability, led to great success as one of his runs caused Romelu Lukaku's second goal.
Five days later he was equally impressive as he created three goal-scoring opportunities and scored twice in his team's 5-2 romp over Tunisia.
Hazard has shown he can run at defenders and beat his marker, or he can expertly link-up with Dries Mertens and Lukaku.
The 27-year-old, by far the World Cup's most impressive player to date, may well be the difference-maker in Belgium's semifinal match against France on Tuesday.
(Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)
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It was mostly Belgium in the early going and England’s attitude toward the match was perhaps best summed up by Danny Rose’s socks.
Maybe it was because coach Gareth Southgate had made five changes from the team that lost the semifinal to Croatia on Wednesday, but there was a creeping despondency about England’s performance in the first half as if the players would have preferred to be somewhere else.
The Three Lions’ first real chance came in the 23rd minute when Raheem Sterling teed up Harry Kane at the top of the box, only for the Tottenham striker to put his effort wide of Thibaut Courtois’ goal.
Belgium nearly doubled its lead in the 35th minute when Youri Tielemans lofted a ball into the area for Toby Alderweireld. But the defender’s audacious over-the-head effort sailed just over the crossbar.
England started the second half with a bit more impetus and had a good opportunity in the 50th minute when Kieran Trippier lofted a free kick into the box towards John Stones. But the danger was cleared by Jan Vertonghen.
Belgium had a golden opportunity to double its lead just five minutes later when Kevin De Bruyne released Lukaku inside the 18, but the striker’s first touch was too heavy, allowing Pickford to snuff out the danger.
England’s best chance to equalize came in the 70th minute when Eric Dier was released into the Belgium box and beat a charging Courtois, only to see his effort cleared off the line by Toby Alderweireld.
In the end, football didn’t come home. It didn’t even finish third. But it did give us all a smile or two as Southgate’s likable team made an improbable run to the semis and for a week or so, made a nation believe. Make what you will of the opposition England faced in this tournament, but this is a young team that can take confidence from its success in Russia and hopefully build toward the future.
The path forward for Belgium is somewhat less clear. No longer a dark horse, Roberto Martinez’s uber-talented side entered this World Cup as one of the favorites. After beating Brazil, the Red Devils looked like true contenders only to get shut down by a French side that will most likely lift the Jules Rimet trophy in 24 hours time. Unlike England, youth is not on Belgium’s side. With many of the team’s stars already on the wrong side of 30, the 2020 European Championship may be Belgium’s last chance to capitalize on this “golden generation” of talent.