It’s the game nobody wanted, a familiar feeling for Belgium and England. The pair met in the least competitive game of the World Cup last month, as they clashed in the last game of Group G. That game was the match which was better to lose than win, to secure the easier path through the World Cup. Ultimately, the pair ended up reaching the same stage, losing out in the semi-finals in midweek.
That teed up the third-place play-off, which this time around featured full strength teams. The pair made more of an effort to take bronze than they did to win their group meeting, but it was Belgium who secured third place in Russia, a tiny reward for the progression they’ve made. Following the clash in St Petersburg, we’re looking back over their final match of this World Cup, and what they have in store next.
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Class Provides Belgium Victory
Belgium claimed their 2-0 victory thanks to a few moments of quality, which beat Jordan Pickford. The group meeting saw all of their gifted talents held back for their last 16 game, and that really showed in Kaliningrad. That clash ended 1-0, with Adnan Januzaj offering a moment of magic to win the game. Armed with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, their brilliance saw off the Three Lions.
Lukaku seems to be learning from his playmaker pals, as he threaded a ball through to carve England open. That allowed left-wing back Nacer Chadli to whip in a cross to Thomas Meunier – the defender on the opposite flank. The Red Devils certainly weren’t worried about risks here. Meunier was involved in one of the moves of the tournament, as Pickford pulled off a stop to keep them in the game.
While England clung on in the game, the class of their opponents told. Hazard troubled Phil Jones, just as he did in the cup final back in May. The Chelsea man struck the second, capping off an impressive summer from his point of view.
England Fall Short Against Top Opposition
England can still claim progress after this summer, it certainly boosted morale around the national team. Recently matches at Wembley had seen attendances coming down, while the biggest talking point during international breaks was how long they felt. That won’t be the case in the autumn, as the Nations League brings back this new England side.
However, one problem for the Three Lions is that they still haven’t claimed their big victory. It’s 16 years and counting since their last win over a major nation at a tournament. That was their Argentina win in 2002. A semi-final win over Croatia would have ended that run, while they passed up two chances to beat Belgium.
While England have taken a step forward this summer, there will be questions when they next meet a major nation. Beating Spain in the Nations League later this year is their next chance, but their confidence for that one would have been higher had they beaten the Belgians. For England to truly go all the way, they need to claim major scalps, or else they’ll consistently come up short.
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Success for Both Sides
In the days after a World Cup semi-final loss, perspective is probably hard to find. However, both of these sides will eventually look back at the tournament as a success. Forget the manner of England’s victories, they’ve still got a lot to be proud of. That’s obviously mixed in with the chance they’ve passed up, as matches of this magnitude don’t come around all that often. Both sides will rarely get a better opportunity to win the tournament, but they’ve also both struggled to find the same chances in the past.
This is Belgium’s best ever World Cup display, after a fourth place finish at Mexico ’86. They’ve taken a step forward from the previous two tournaments, while they can be happy with the nature of their run. They managed to dominate games with two giants, who were both tournament favourites at the time. That was something that seemed beyond them mentally.
Meanwhile, England recorded their joint best finish on foreign soil. Like the bronze medal defeat they suffered in 1990, they will likely try and wipe this game from history. However, the semi-final run will be remembered as fondly as their time in Italy. With expectations at an all-time low, this England side have obviously progressed, especially in the relationship with their fans.
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Managers Come Out with Credit
Equally, both of these sides will be exiting with the reputations of the men in charge greatly enhanced, and that’s not something that could be said for the finalists.
The tournament started with Roberto Martinez as the readymade scapegoat, especially after making a few big calls during his time in charge of the Red Devils. The former Everton boss showed his talents with a tactical masterclass against Brazil, which was a massive moment that changed the tournament. That made him the man to take the Red Devils on a level, and that’s huge for them going forward.
Meanwhile, Southgate was met with an angry reaction on both occasions the FA turned to him. When a pint of wine landed him in the hot seat, this semi-final run would have seemed like witchcraft to many. However, he has changed the team in a way Sam Allardyce never would, and that leaves him with huge credit following the tournament. The fans have hope again, because the national team is changing for the better.
Months before every tournament, we hear the same fatigued claim. A pundit somewhere will claim England are undoubtedly doomed, and the biggest tournament in football should be no more than a learning experience for the next generation of the Three Lions. Just two months ago Gary Lineker said England, “are not going to do particularly well”. He followed that up by telling Southgate to write-off the tournament, and play the youngsters.
It’s a ridiculous approach, but Southgate did do it in a sense. Their typical learning experience would be more of the same, yet this was an education in how to manage tournament football. For once, the players aren’t coming out scarred by failure, but desperate to make amends. That difference is down to one man, and one large serving of wine.
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