England Finish World Cup In Fourth Place After Defeat To Belgium
A 2-0 loss saw England unable to finish the World Cup on a relative high, as Belgium ultimately beat them to third place.
Gareth Southgate's youthful side have won many admirers for their valiant attempts in Russia, but it was difficult to ignore the sense that this third-place play-off was an unwanted distraction from two sides still licking their wounds.
Southgate made three changes to the side that ultimately lost in Moscow, as Phil Jones, Fabian Delph, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Danny Rose came into the side in place of Kyle Walker, Jordan Henderson, Ashley Young and Dele Alli. With most of the side having played throughout the tournament, would an injection of fresh legs provide the answer?
Apparently not. England got off to a nightmare start as they were simply carved open by Belgium with just three minutes on the clock - an incisive move saw Nacer Chadli race into the England box and towards the byline, where he squared the ball to Thomas Meunier, who had stolen in front of a scrambling Rose to slot home.
Eight minutes later, England's backline was exposed again as Kevin De Bruyne sidefooted towards goal from 16 yards out. Thankfully, this time Jordan Pickford was on hand to clear.
England showed more attacking intent as the half wore on, although a lack of cutting edge was evident as Harry Maguire and Ruben Loftus-Cheek could only head comfortably into the waiting arms of an unthreatened Thibaut Courtois.
The rest of the half continued without incident, although Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku might have headed down the tunnel frustrated that they had not made more of decent opportunities. It remained 1-0 at the break.
At half-time Southgate introduced Lingard for Rose and Marcus Rashford for Sterling, his attacking intentions clear as the team continued to search for a way back into the game.
England's build-up play continued to cause as many problems to their forwards as the Belgian defence, however, with plenty of promising runs immediately fouled up by errant passing. Roberto Martinez's side scarcely looked more convincing, although their slender lead suggested they were, on balance, the better side.
On 50 minutes, Trippier looped in a dangerous cross, although Toby Alderweireld's excellent intervention prevented John Stones' outstretched boot from prodding home. As Belgium broke from the resulting corner, the Manchester City centre-back picked up a yellow card for hauling down an advancing Eden Hazard.
England's next scare came on 55 minutes as de Bruyne slotted a perfect ball through for Lukaku, bisecting the English defence after calmly rolling through the legs of Stones, but luckily Pickford was alert to collect.
With 20 minutes to go, England finally began to pick up momentum, with final substitute Eric Dier surging into the box and dinking over Courtois, but Alderweireld proved his worth again as he slid in to clear off the line.
The Three Lions ultimately looked better in the second half than they had in the first - more purposeful and dynamic, but yet again let themselves down in the final third. Dier and Maguire will surely wish they had been able to head towards goal with more composure.
Their profligacy was punished on the 81st minute as the excellent Hazard stole into the penalty area, effortlessly beating the lumbering Jones for pace before firing into the bottom corner for 2-0. The goal proved the decider.
It was ultimately the death knell for England in this tournament, but they remain a work-in-progress team who have already proved they had much to offer. Belgium and Croatia had too much for them - perhaps France might have been a stretch too far as well.
However, Martinez's men remain a hotly-tipped team who have yet to fully deliver on their evident ability. This generation of Belgian players still has several tournaments left in which to prove themselves; Southgate's young and promising England may be down for now, but their future remains unwritten and their optimism undimmed.
Featured Image Credit: PA