Surprisingly, both teams appeared to have decided that this was a match worth playing and so fielded very strong sides. In truth, this game had more to do with the final destination of the Golden Boot for the tournament’s top goal scorer. Despite looking desperately unfit in his previous two games, Harry Kane started up front for England, possibly after learning that Romelu Lukaku was starting for Belgium and therefore putting his hope of getting that coveted award into jeopardy. This column is all for strikers being selfish but there is a limit – apparently, Kane has yet to find his.
Disaster struck early on for England. A ball into midfield from Thibaut Courtois was laid into the path of Romelu Lukaku who had both the time and space to look up and play a beautiful through ball to Nacer Chadli in the left channel who in turn squared it for Thomas Meunier and the wing-back got ahead of Danny Rose all too easily to steer it past Jordan Pickford. England’s defending was terrible with Rose in particular culpable of being overly casual.
It was, as expected, a scrappy enough affair but it was Belgium who were clearly the better team early on; much quicker to the ball and faster in possession as well as causing plenty of problems for England’s back line. Lukaku, in particular, looked as if he wanted to grab that Golden Boot from the grasp of a stuttering Kane but mangled a chance when put through perfectly by Kevin de Bruyne. That was essentially the tone of the first half: Belgium creating most of the chances but fluffing them at the last whereas England were slow, laboured and bereft of ideas.
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Belgium Deserve Bronze Despite Second Half English Rally
England made two changes at the beginning of the second half with Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard coming on for Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling respectively. It initially made a difference as both the players made attacking inroads that their predecessors had failed to do, they injected a bit of energy and directness so that for once, Belgium defenders had something to think about. For all that, though, Harry Kane was still nowhere to be seen in his quest to tie up the Golden Boot. In his favour, Lukaku’s first touch was atrocious every time he was put through and, with half an hour left to play, Roberto Martinez decided to take him off for Dries Mertens.
As the half wore, England began to show more of their fighting qualities and put Belgium under more concerted pressure. Eric Dier, of all people, began to make an impression on the game. A one-two put him through into the English penalty area and he bore down on Courtois before flicking it over the onrushing ‘keeper. It was a rare act of quality in the game but Toby Aldeweireld managed to get back and clear it from the line. The pressure kept coming and it seemed as if it would only be a matter of time before a goal came.
And indeed it did but it wasn’t one for England. Belgium, although under the cosh for most of the second half, had looked very dangerous on the break throughout and it was on such a counter that they scored their second. The ball was played forward to Eden Hazard and Phil Jones did his level best to trip himself up before turning and trying to trip Hazard but in the end, did neither and Hazard sent Pickford the wrong way. With under 10 minutes left to play, that was pretty much that. The wind had been taken from England’s sails, their candle blown out, their ship scuttled etcetera. Their World Cup adventure was officially at an end.
Belgium had provided the World Cup with some of its most exciting games and also knocked out the favourites, Brazil, along the way. If it was they, rather than England, who ended up in the “easy side of the group”, who knows how far they might have gone? England, for their part, got further than anyone expected them to but, when put up against teams of real quality, found it a step too far. They are a young team and will take great solace from their efforts but if they can’t figure out how to get goals from open play, there will always be a limit to what they can achieve. Still, both teams can be proud of what they brought to this World Cup in Russia and can dine out on their exploits for many years to come.
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