Belgium claim bronze in forgettable but decent affair

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.

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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.

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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)
England 0
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.

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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.

Top 5
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.

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Kane’s fortunate hat-trick headlines crushing English victory

Ricardo Ávila delivered the free-kick into the box from a fairly dangerous position. The set piece wasn’t particularly well defended by the English, and 37-year-old Panamanian substitute Felipe Baloy, on World Cup debut, found space in the box. He slid in, the ball caught his outstretched boot, and Jordan Pickford’s dive couldn’t keep it out of the bottom corner. In their second World Cup game, Panama finally had their first World Cup goal, and the Panamanian fans in Nizhny Novgorod were jubilant. An outside observer may have seen the rapturous celebrations and assumed Panama were level, even ahead. If only those six English goals (five in the first half) were taken out of the equation. Panama had some chances, and Baloy’s historic goal ensured their fans left the ground in fairly good spirits, but they were never going to match it with a classy English team. After going into half time 5-0 down following a steady procession of English goals, the Panamanians were lucky it didn’t get any worse.

The first goal came from a poorly-defended corner. There was a delay in taking the kick as referee Gehad Grisha delivered the customary lecture on not holding in the box, and then had to deliver said lecture again when Harry Maguire and Gabriel Gómez both tumbled to the ground. Finally, Kieran Trippier swung the corner in, despite Maguire and Gómez continuing to jostle aggressively with each other. They attracted the attention, but it was John Stones who scored the goal. Stones was seemingly unmarked, having benefitted from some unbelievably loose defence from Michael Murillo, and he had no problems heading the ball into the bottom corner.

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Raheem Sterling (left) is thwarted by Jaime Penedo as he looks to get in behind the Panamanian defence. Sterling made plenty of good runs and got into dangerous positions, but he couldn’t get himself a goal.

The second goal wasn’t too long in coming. Jesse Lingard made a good run in behind the Panamanian defence, and was picked out on the edge of the box. Then he was brutally hacked down by both of Panama’s centre-backs, with Fidel Escobar getting in first before Román Torres added his weight to the very heavy – and very illegal – challenge. Harry Kane stepped up to take the penalty, and the English captain drilled a perfect spot kick past Jaime Penedo.

If the game wasn’t already over after Kane’s penalty, it was after Lingard scored the third goal. The energetic midfielder received the ball on the edge of the box, played a one-two with Raheem Sterling to get himself in position and fired an unstoppable shot into the top corner. It looked ridiculously simple. It most definitely wasn’t. Penedo’s full-length dive was in vain against Lingard’s casual brilliance, and there were still 10 minutes left in the half. Time enough for two more goals, then.

The fourth came from a carefully designed set piece. England won a free-kick in an awkward position, where neither a shot nor a cross was particularly simple. Instead, Trippier went for a short pass to Jordan Henderson, who crossed the ball across the goal face to where Kane was waiting. He headed back towards the middle, and Panama’s defence was so poor that both Sterling and Stones were wide open in front of goal. Sterling missed, with Penedo making a good reflex save, but Stones gleefully headed the rebound into the roof of the net. England’s plan worked like clockwork, and Panama’s defence couldn’t lay a hand on them.

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Harry Kane scores his second goal, and England’s fifth, with a successful penalty. The penalty was one of two Panama gave away with clumsy pieces of defending.

Another set piece, leading to another penalty, gave them the fifth as the steady procession of goals continued. It’s not clear who gave away the penalty from Trippier’s corner, with Aníbal Godoy tackling Kane to the ground particularly vigorously and others receiving similar treatment. Kane happily accepted his second goal from the spot, with Penedo beaten once again. The half time whistle gave Panama some respite, but the scoreline was already beyond ugly.

England only scored one in the second half, with Kane bagging his hat-trick in a comical fashion and looking almost apologetic as the ball went into the back of the net. Ruben Loftus-Cheek did the hard work, taking on an ambitious shot directed at the bottom corner of the Panamanian goal. Then it took a big deflection. Kane was in mid-stride and not looking at the ball as it rolled into the back of his heels, and Penedo could only watch helplessly as the ball looped into the back of the net. There was a suggestion that Kane was offside, but the goal stood and England’s captain was substituted immediately after his last touch led to a goal he didn’t intend to score. You couldn’t make it up. In the end, Baloy’s goal gave Panama something to celebrate, but there was no hiding their inadequacy when compared with their opponents. For England, expectations have been muted up to this point. That could be about to change.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
England 6 (Stones 8, 40, Kane 22 pen, 45+1 pen, 62, Lingard 36)
Panama 1 (Baloy 78)
Referee: Gehad Grisha (Egy)
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier (Rose 70), Loftus-Cheek, Henderson, Lingard (Delph 63), Young; Sterling, Kane (Vardy 63).
Panama (4-5-1): Penedo – Murillo, R Torres, Escobar, Davis; Bárcenas (Arroyo 69), Cooper, Gómez (Baloy 69), Godoy (Ávila 64), Rodríguez; Pérez.

Top 5
1. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard backed up his performance in England’s tournament opener with another energetic display. He found a goal for himself with an excellent strike into the top corner, and he provided the spark for Kane’s first goal with a great run in behind. He continued to make dangerous runs until his eventual substitution and he seems to have found a rich vein of form.
2. John Stones (England)
Stones had very little defensive work to do, but it was his work at attacking set pieces that set him apart. He was left completely unmanned at a corner and a free-kick, and Panama played a heavy price for their weak defence as Stones found two goals and worked his way into good positions.
3. Harry Kane (England)
A hat-trick is a hat-trick, but his three goals against Panama will rate as three of the most fortunate of his career. His two penalties were both well-hit, however, and although he was lucky to complete his hat-trick with a goal he didn’t even mean to score his three goals were a testament to his ability to get into good attacking spots.
4. Raheem Sterling (England)
Sterling will be unhappy that he missed a brilliant chance to break his international goal drought, but he did put in a good performance filled with plenty of dangerous runs and a couple of involvements in goals. He was putting in a big effort for 90 minutes, and he was unlucky not to find the back of the net.
5. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s set piece delivery may have been dangerous against Tunisia, but against a Panamanian team with poor defensive organisation his corners and free-kicks were even more damaging. His set pieces contributed, directly or indirectly, to three of England’s goals, and he did his few defensive duties diligently.