Belgium put two unanswered goals past England in the World Cup’s third-place game at Krestovsky Stadium in St. 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.
The goal was fastest ever scored by Belgium in its World Cup history.
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 Alderweireld.
Belgium finally put the game to bed some 10 minutes later, when De Bruyne fed Hazard who broke into the England box and beat Pickford at the near post to make it 2-0 in the 82nd minute.
Keep calm and carry on England
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. Belgium can take pride in achieving its best-ever finish in a World Cup, but unlike England, youth is not necessarily on this team’s side. With many of the team’s key players 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.