England have finished fourth in the World Cup after going down to a 2-0 defeat to Belgium in Saturday’s play-off in Saint Petersburg.
Gareth Southgate’s men, insisting that they were looking to finish on a high despite the deflating semi-final defeat to Croatia, looked brighter from open play than they had done at any other point since the clash with Panama, but were unable to prevent a technically superior and more clinical Belgian side from taking victory and the bronze medal.
The Three Lions, operating the same midfield trio of Eric Dier, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph that started in the earlier group match between these two sides, were deprived of the chance to settle into any sort of rhythm as they found themselves behind with less than four minutes on the clock.
Nacer Chadli broke free down the left wing and afforded the space to square it low into the box – right wing-back Thomas Meunier was on hand to steer the ball home having evaded John Stones.
From there, England searched for a way back into the match but Belgium had them firmly under control for the remainder of the first half. Southgate’s men did end the half with three shots on target – more than they managed in the entirety of every match since Panama – but they went into the tunnel 1-0 down at the break.
England were a bit livelier after the restart and were beginning to put some crosses into the box. However, Harry Kane, looking a little heavy-footed and possibly still carrying a knock, was slow to react to every dangerous ball into the penalty area. Belgium, for their part, could have gone 2-0 up before the hour mark but Romelu Lukaku failed to trap the ball having been played through on goal.
England came agonisingly close to equalising with twenty minutes remaining, as Eric Dier raced through and dinked over Thibaut Courtois only to see his effort cleared off the line thanks to a dramatic intervention from Tottenham clubmate Toby Alderweireld.
Southgate’s men grew in confidence from there, but should have heeded the warning when Belgium came close to doubling their lead through a fine volley from Meunier on the counter with just shy of ten minutes remaining. They didn’t, and Belgium made it 2-0 courtesy of an Eden Hazard breakaway in the 82nd minute.
From there, it only looked as though there was going to be one winner, as England looked physically and mentally drained as soon as that the ball hit the back of their net for a second time. The exploits of a long season finally took their toll on these players, and it was then just a case of waiting for the final whistle.
Belgium emerged 2-0 winners to secure a tournament-best third place, while England matched the fourth-place finish they achieved in their last semi-final appearance in 1990.
— FIFA World Cup ? (@FIFAWorldCup) July 14, 2018
It’s all over in Saint Petersburg.
— England (@England) July 14, 2018
We love you fans ! ?
— Belgian Red Devils (@BelRedDevils) July 14, 2018