The unfortunate nature of third-placed play-offs is that their intrigue is based on things which are not relevant to the outcome of the tournament. Both sides are already eliminated when the clash takes place, and the nature of semi-final defeat means that they have often come from agonising losses. This particular third-placed play-off, between England and Belgium, didn’t look any different. England had a chance to avenge their group stage defeat to the Belgians, but they hadn’t looked too worried when they were losing and it hardly seemed likely that they had been waiting for their opportunity to exact revenge. In the end they didn’t get their revenge, and they didn’t seem to care too deeply. There was also the golden boot battle, although it hardly seemed likely that Romelu Lukaku would score the two goals needed to wrest the title of the tournament’s top scorer from slightly lucky English skipper Harry Kane. He didn’t score any.
Bizarrely, neither side took the field in their traditional colours, even though it was hard to see any clash between Belgium’s traditional red and England’s traditional white. Still, FIFA decided a kit clash existed, so Belgium wore yellow and England, oddly, wore red. Such bureaucratic matters didn’t seem to trouble Belgium, and it didn’t take them long to find the back of the net. Lukaku received the ball in the centre of the field, and one well-placed ball unlocked England’s defence and picked out Nacer Chadli. Chadli was streaming into space on the left, and his cross fell perfectly for Thomas Meunier in a dangerous position. Meunier’s incisive run allowed him to receive the ball on the edge of the six-yard box, and he had no trouble putting it past Jordan Pickford from such close range.Embed from Getty Images
Thomas Meunier (right) scores Belgium’s first goal past Jordan Pickford. The goal left England needing to chase the game, a task they didn’t apply themselves to until the last 20 minutes.
Then the game broke down a little, as neither team really threatened. Mainly, Belgium’s moves looked dangerous and then fell apart after attempts at telepathic passing which left a lot to be desired. The prime example of this was Kevin de Bruyne’s no-look backheel for Lukaku, which was delivered into a dangerous spot. It would have been a brilliant play, had the big striker not been positioned some five metres from where de Bruyne’s pass was aimed. One chance came when Lukaku’s pass somehow slipped through to de Bruyne, who seemed surprised to be receiving the ball, let off a half-hearted shot and nearly scored with the half-hearted shot as said shot was deflected dangerously. In defence, Vincent Kompany perfectly split the middle of Jan Vertonghen and Chadli, and everyone could only watch in disbelief and slight disinterest as the ball rolled out for a throw-in. In the middle of it all, Lukaku had a genuine chance one-on-one with Pickford, but he fluffed his lines with a heavy touch and the ball was claimed easily by the English goalkeeper.
As it progressed, the game developed into a collection of disjointed moments which didn’t really take a defined pattern. Belgium were mostly on top, but they never really broke past England’s five-man defence, and sometimes England looked decent too. Both teams gave the impression that the score didn’t really matter, and it was easy to forget that Belgium were ahead 1-0 as the teams went about their business. They weren’t exactly uncaring, and it wasn’t exactly poor quality, but it was easily forgettable football punctuated by the occasional moment of skill or the occasional attacking gaffe. Such gaffes were usually met with indifference, and such moments of skill inevitably came to nothing. There weren’t many chances, but those that did come often arrived with no warning, and were sometimes even accidents (like when Youri Tielemans miscued a shot and presented Toby Alderweireld with an unexpected chance to volley inside the box).
The start of the second half didn’t represent much of a deviation from the haphazard pattern of the first. Any chances, like Jesse Lingard’s dangerous ball across goal which missed Kane’s diving attempt at volleying it home, weren’t telegraphed, and both teams were about as sloppy as ever. Belgium took a particularly pointless corner as Eden Hazard rolled the ball to Dries Mertens, who attempted a cross. It was blocked by the man given the role of blocking the cross: and flew out for another corner. In short, a few seconds had been wasted, and absolutely nothing had been gained by either side. A few minutes later, both Kane and Kompany ended up on the ground after Kane attempted a volley and just fell on his backside. It wasn’t clear why Kompany was down, but there was little time to dwell on it as Belgium attempted a dangerous-looking counter-attack which fell through.Embed from Getty Images
Eric Dier (left) watches as club teammate Toby Alderweireld (centre) clears his chip off the goal line and out. Dier’s shot was the closest England came to getting an equaliser.
Suddenly (neither side was exerting enough pressure on the other to actually create anything that wasn’t sudden), England nearly scored. Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford combined beautifully to play Dier through, and the powerful midfielder managed to chip Thibaut Courtois. Unfortunately for him, Alderweireld reacted quicker than anyone, and he was already sliding in to clear the shot off the line. At that point, the momentum of the game turned. Belgium had been turning the ball over all game and suffering no consequences. Then England, 70 minutes in, finally started to look threatening after receiving errant passes, and the results were instantaneous. They had some dangerous set pieces and a few good chances, and they looked set to break through.
Counter-intuitively, England’s late offensive tipped the balance of the match firmly in Belgium’s favour. Space began to open up when they won the ball back, and they looked increasingly dangerous on the break. De Bruyne, Hazard and Mertens started to combine, and Meunier nearly nabbed a second when he slammed a volley to Pickford’s right and forced the English goalkeeper into an excellent save. Pickford’s face was a mix of exasperation and petulance as the ball moved back up the field. Eventually, one of Belgium’s counter-attacks broke through, killing off England’s hopes once and for all. De Bruyne provided the pass, splitting the defence open and picking out the run of Hazard, who gave Pickford no chance as he stroked the ball into the bottom corner.
After that, there was very little to play for, as Belgium commanded the rest of the game and continued to look the more dangerous side as the increasingly ragged-looking English stretched themselves further and further in pursuit of a goal that would never come. At one point Kompany surged forward from his home in the heart of defence, pushing into the box and hoping for a cross from Hazard. Hazard’s cross wasn’t great, and Kompany’s avaricious attempt to hunt a goal left him caught out of position. It didn’t matter too much, as England’s slow build-up allowed the veteran defender to sheepishly trot back into place. Belgium’s win was a nice way to finish their tournament, and the bronze medals they received are a nice trinket to mark a truly great generation of Belgian footballers. For England, who had nothing to lose and have a bright future ahead of them, the loss is unlikely to sting too badly. In the end, it didn’t really matter to anyone, but the game wasn’t too bad. That’s about as good as third-place play-offs get.
Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Belgium 2 (Meunier 4, E Hazard 82)
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Tielemans (Dembélé 78), Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 39); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Mertens 60), E Hazard.
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Jones, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Loftus-Cheek (Alli 84), Dier, Delph, Rose (Lingard 46); Sterling (Rashford 46), Kane.
Belgium’s players celebrate after receiving their bronze medals. The medals will be a nice trinket for a great Belgian team, but they won’t make up for the disappointment of a semi-final defeat.
1. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier wasn’t always as clinical as he could have been, but he looked fresher than anyone else thanks to the suspension that ruled him out of the semi-final and he had a massive impact on the game as a result. He found the scoresheet early, and he created plenty of opportunities for Belgium with his hard running.
2. John Stones (England)
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Stones was responsible for England’s semi-final defeat, but he was certainly responsible for Croatia’s winning goal. The third-place play-off gave him a chance to atone for his costly error, and he did so with a strong defensive performance. If something needed blocking, he was there, and he denied Belgium on a few occasions.
3. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne’s plans didn’t always come off, mostly because his teammates often failed to understand their role in them, but he had the ball in the final third more than any other Belgian and he was always dangerous. He was the only Belgian capable of breaking down England’s massed defence, and when he caught them on the break Belgium always threatened to score.
4. Eric Dier (England)
Dier played more of a back seat role throughout the tournament, and he seized his chance when he was drafted into the team for Jordan Henderson. He came into his own in the second half, bossing the midfield and using his physicality and skill to give Belgium some real problems.
5. Youri Tielemans (Belgium)
This game may mark the end of Belgium’s golden generation, with most of their starters set to be past their prime when Qatar 2022 rolls around. In Tielemans, however, the Belgians may have found someone who can become one of their key players in years to come. His influence waned in the second half, but Tielemans showed that Belgian football still has a bright future with a good effort.