England missed the chance to finish with a flourish as Belgium ran out convincing 2-0 winners in the World Cup third-place play-off in Saint Petersburg.
Thomas Meunier opened the scoring with just four minutes gone but despite their dominance, Roberto Martinez’s side had to wait until the 82nd minute to settle the bronze medal match, Eden Hazard converting a pass from another familiar tormentor, Kevin De Bruyne.
Victory in the cruellest game of the tournament represents Belgium’s best finish at a World Cup but England, much improved after the interval, should at least boast the Golden Boot winner in six-goal Harry Kane, even if the Tottenham striker endured another frustrating afternoon.
Belgium: Courtois (7), Alderweireld (7), Kompany (6), Vertonghen (6), Meunier (7),Tielemans (7), Witsel (6), Chadli (6), De Bruyne (8), Lukaku (5), E Hazard (8).
Subs: Vermaelen (6), Mertens (6), Dembele (6).
England: Pickford (7), Jones (6), Stones (6), Maguire (7), Trippier (7), Loftus-Cheek (6), Dier (6), Delph (6), Rose (6), Sterling (6), Kane (6)
Subs: Lingard (6), Rashford (7), Alli (n/a).
Man of the match: Kevin De Bruyne
Gareth Southgate’s side head home following an inspiring, restorative campaign in which they rekindled their connection with supporters, but the gulf in class during spells of this farewell outing keeps in sharp focus the challenges ahead as they seek to build on the promise.
Southgate had urged his players to end on a high after an “emotion-filled” few days, but Belgium had the lead inside five minutes when Romelu Lukaku exploited midfield space to play in Nacer Chadli and Meunier then beat Danny Rose to meet the cross.
Gareth Southgate made five changes for the play-off, handing starts to Phil Jones, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Eric Dier, Fabian Delph and Danny Rose. Harry Kane kept his place as he hunted the Golden Boot.
Roberto Martinez made just two changes, Thomas Meunier and Youri Tielemans starting in midfield in place of Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele.
Lukaku should have found Hazard just moments later, wrongly looking right rather than left, but Belgium continued to break quickly with England fragile and after a John Stones mis-kick, Jordan Pickford had to push away a De Bruyne effort.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Harry Maguire offered fleeting threat with headers, before Kane snatched at a ball neatly laid off by Raheem Sterling, yet Southgate’s weary-looking side – overrun in midfield with their forwards peripheral – remained second best.
Southgate swapped Sterling and Rose for Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard, and the latter’s half-volley across goal shortly after the restart only just evaded Kane’s lunge as England returned with overdue zip.
Lukaku headed straight down the tunnel after being substituted on the hour, a heavy touch when through on goal his last offering, but the man he failed to chase down in the goalscoring charts was toiling himself, this time with a miscued volley.
Eric Dier’s goalbound dink following a give-and-go with Rashford was cleared off the line by Toby Alderweireld, before Maguire headed wide from another fine Kieran Trippier delivery as England stayed in search of the equaliser.
Pickford pulled off a fine late save to deny Meunier but Hazard sealed the victory when he finished off a flowing move, England’s tournament reaching a meek conclusion but their Russia adventure overall one to live long in the memory.
Man of the match – Kevin De Bruyne
A joyful player who relished the freedom afforded by a fixture of this nature. Passed the ball with fluency, range and intent, dominating the centre of the park. Set up Hazard’s goal with a trademark weighted pass and left Dier red-faced with another threaded through his legs.
- Belgium have registered their best finish at a World Cup tournament, finishing third and beating their previous best finish of fourth in 1986.
- This was England’s 100th match at a major tournament (69 at the World Cup, 31 at the European Championships). They have won 39, drawn 32 and lost 29 of those matches.
- Since 1966, no player has been involved in more World Cup goals for Belgium than Eden Hazard (7, 3 goals and 4 assists), level with Jan Ceulemans (4 goals, 3 assists).
- Thomas Meunier was the 10th different player to score for Belgium at the 2018 World Cup – the joint-most scorers by a team at a World Cup tournament (also 10 for France in 1982 and Italy in 2006).
- Harry Kane ended the 2018 World Cup with six goals from six shots on target – however, he had just one shot on target in his final four World Cup matches, doing so from the penalty spot against Colombia.
- This was only the third time that England have lost two matches in a calendar year against the same opponent, also losing twice against Wales in 1936 and twice against Italy in 1973.
- England had as many shots on target in this match as they managed in their previous three knockout matches combined (6).