Friday 19 July 2019

Beaten Lions depart with pride intact

Belgium 2 England 0

England’s Marcus Rashford tries to control the ball in acrobatic style during yesterday’s World Cup third place play-off against Belgium at Saint Petersburg Stadium. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA
England’s Marcus Rashford tries to control the ball in acrobatic style during yesterday’s World Cup third place play-off against Belgium at Saint Petersburg Stadium. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA

Dominic Fifield

There was a collective puffing of cheeks offered up by England's players at the final whistle, victims of Belgium's best World Cup showing, but that sense of disappointment will pass quickly enough.

Gareth Southgate's young and talented squad did themselves proud over this tournament. No other English team has ever bettered the fourth place they have claimed, unexpectedly and joyously, on foreign soil and their achievements are to be celebrated.

Belgium's forward Eden Hazard (L) celebrates with Belgium's forward Dries Mertens (R) and Belgium's midfielder Kevin De Bruyne after scoring their second goal Photo: AFP/Getty
Belgium's forward Eden Hazard (L) celebrates with Belgium's forward Dries Mertens (R) and Belgium's midfielder Kevin De Bruyne after scoring their second goal Photo: AFP/Getty

Some will no doubt argue that England have still to prosper against top-quality opposition in competitive action, if, indeed, that is what this was. Belgium have beaten them twice in this tournament. Their celebrations at the end reflected a sense of achievement and they will be received by the crowds in Brussels today rejoicing in their best showing at a World Cup. But, as Southgate had pointed out in the build-up, England never expected to be here. "I'm not sure anyone in our country thought we'd be playing seven matches," he had offered.

They competed well here, despite a slack opening which left them chasing the game almost from the outset. England's second-half showing demonstrated all the pride and commitment for which Southgate had called. They were the dominant team after the interval, even if Belgium retained a considerable threat on the break, as demonstrated eight minutes from time by Hazard's smart finish inside Jordan Pickford's post. Yet headers at set-plays drifted wide, and Toby Alderweireld hooked Eric Dier's clipped finish off the line. The stubborn refusal to wilt, despite having shipped a goal with the game in its infancy, was still admirable.

The introduction of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford at half-time clearly made an impact, and to see the group straining to respond despite weary legs and tired minds was impressive. There was plenty to admire: from Fabian Delph's versatility and fine challenge to thwart Thomas Meunier; to Kieran Trippier's delivery which so stretched even this experienced opposing back-line at times; the substitutes' zest and a strong showing from Ruben Loftus-Cheek; and Dier's increased influence in midfield. The Tottenham midfielder, one of five changes from the semi-final, exchanged passes with Rashford midway through the second half to advance on Thibaut Courtois at an angle. His shot was clipped smartly over the goalkeeper, only for Alderweireld to slide in and scramble the effort from under the crossbar.

England's players massed in front of their supporters after the final whistle, serenaded to the heavens for their efforts, while Belgium prepared to mount the stage to claim their bronze medals. The Belgians had the bite - their wing-backs had combined to force them ahead while the game was still settling into its rhythm. That reward had stemmed from a Courtois clearance, nodded down by Nacer Chadli for Romelu Lukaku to accept and exploit the gaps in a rejigged England midfield. His pass inside Trippier for the galloping Chadli to collect was superbly weighted, with the West Bromwich Albion player - who departed before the break with hamstring trouble - squaring across the six-yard box. There appeared Meunier, sprinting in ahead of a startled Danny Rose, to convert beyond Pickford.

England's coach Gareth Southgate (L) talks to England's forward Harry Kane after the game Photo: AFP/Getty
England's coach Gareth Southgate (L) talks to England's forward Harry Kane after the game Photo: AFP/Getty

The Everton goalkeeper did well to paw away Kevin De Bruyne's deflected effort, and thrillingly from Meunier's late volley after a counter-attack crammed with back-heels and precise passing which left England gasping in the vapour trail. Twice the Manchester City playmaker split England's back-line with subtle and perfectly weighted passes only for Lukaku's heavy touch to kibosh the chance. The striker, four times a scorer in Russia, was substituted on the hour-mark and strode off straight down the tunnel, and was even absent in the post-match huddle out on the pitch.

His chances of claiming the golden boot had died here, with that honour surely now Harry Kane's to celebrate, unless Kylian Mbappé or Antoine Griezmann runs riot in the final. The England captain only really had one sight of goal here, after the excellent John Stones clipped over a fine pass for Raheem Sterling, who squared neatly across the penalty area. Kane has looked as fatigued as anyone of late, and his standing duly leg gave way as he struck his shot. The effort veered wide of Courtois's post.

Those misses left England watching the post-game ceremony from the fringes, but they have not been peripheral to this tournament. And it has been a while since that could be said. Southgate and his players can look back with pride.

Observer

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