Belgium secured its best finish at a World Cup as Thomas Meunier’s goal in the fourth minute and Eden Hazard’s insurance marker in the 82nd provided the margin in a 2-0 victory over England in the third-place match Saturday in St. Petersburg.
A sorely missed player through yellow-card suspension in Belgium’s semifinal loss to France, Meunier ghosted in front of Danny Rose and stabbed Nacer Chadli’s cross from the left from six yards past Jordan Pickford. Romelu Lukaku started the play with a smart through ball to Chadli.
Belgium secured the win against the run of play. Hazard, kept onside by Phil Jones, was played through by Kevin De Bruyne into the penalty area on the left, and he beat Pickford inside the near post with a low hard shot from six yards.
While this was the last World Cup appearance for Belgium’s golden generation, they likely will make their swan song at the 2020 European Championships, which will be played across the continent before the semifinals and final are played in England.
Unlike Belgium’s 1-0 victory over England to close group play June that included five first-choice starters combined for both sides, this match was played primarily with the starting XIs for both teams, though England overturned five players since it was playing on one less day of rest after its 2-1 defeat to Croatia after extra time Wednesday.
But like the first match, Belgium controlled long stretches of play and created the better chances between the sides. De Bruyne and Hazard were both menacing going forward for Roberto Martinez’s side, with Lukaku looking to pounce on any inch of space afforded him by England’s back three.
While England striker Harry Kane got more service in the run of play than he did in the previous two matches, it was still not enough to get him to add to his haul of six goals that is all but certain to win him the Golden Boot as the top scorer at the World Cup. It was the second defeat in the third-place match for the Three Lions, who lost to host Italy in 1990.
Belgium’s only previous third-place match before today was a 4-2 loss to France in Mexico in 1986. Meunier was the 10th different goal-scorer for the Red Devils in Russia, tying a World Cup record.
While Gareth Southgate made five changes, Kieran Trippier was a surprising inclusion in England’s XI considering he suffered a leg injury in the final minutes versus Croatia and could not continue after all four substitutions had been used.
De Bruyne nearly doubled Belgium’s lead in the 12th minute, but his 12-yard shot on the left was knocked away by Pickford after it took a deflection. England’s defense took a while to gain its bearings as Belgium’s attacking trio took turns running at the back three.
England had more of the ball than it did in the first match between the sides, but Belgium was also ceding that possession in non-threatening areas before its back three, anchored by Vincent Kompany, blunted the challenges the Three Lions threw their way.
In the 23rd minute, Sterling did well to control a ball over the top from Loftus-Cheek and laid it off to his right for Kane, who tried to knock it inside the left post from the top of the box but dragged it wide as the ball did not settle on his approach.
Belgium won a corner in the 34th minute when Hazard had a shot blocked by Stones after De Bruyne sent him through on the right. De Bruyne angled it to Youri Tielemans at the top of the box, but his scuffed shot turned into a pass as Toby Alderweireld’s 12-yard volley just went over the bar.
Chadli, who came up limping after a charge down the field, made way for Thomas Vermaelen in the 39th minute. Belgium made another push, with Stones shutting down his Manchester City teammate De Bruyne on a shot from just inside the penalty area on the right.
Kane tried to send Loftus-Cheek through on the right, but Courtois was alert to the danger and raced out to collect the ball. Lukaku had one last chance before halftime as he took on Stones 1-on-1, but the Man City defender got the best of the Man United striker, deflecting his shot over for a corner that never came as referee Alireza Faghani blew the whistle for halftime.
Southgate introduced Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard for Sterling and Rose at halftime as Sterling’s scoring drought at the international level continued. He has two goals in 44 international matches, but none since 2015.
Rashford and Lingard, though, injected England with some pace as they harried Belgium’s defense and helped recycle possession in the final third.
Jones made a rare foray forward in the 49th minute, but his cross was too close to Courtois, who comfortably caught his curling attempt from the right. England won a corner in the 51st minute when Vertonghen played Trippier’s cross on a free kick over the end line, but Courtois intercepted the in-swinger from the left.
He rapidly fired it ahead to Hazard, who drew a yellow card on Stones for a tactical foul at midfield. Kane narrowly missed re-directing Lingard’s fizzed shot with his right boot in the 54th minute as Axel Witsel got caught napping on a throw-in from the right.
Lukaku spurned a chance to double the lead in the 56th minute as De Bruyne laced a perfect through ball between Jones and Fabian Delph into the penalty area, but the United striker’s first touch was too heavy as Pickford gratefully collected the ball.
Martinez lifted Lukaku on the hour for Dries Mertens as the United striker ended his World Cup with four goals. It also left France’s Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe as the only players who could potentially catch Kane for the Golden Boot, though both would need to score three goals in Sunday’s final versus Croatia.
Delph made a vital intervention in the 62nd minute, conceding a corner after Hazard played Meunier deep into the penalty area on the right. Belgium earned a second one, but Kompany’s backheel off Mertens’ corner from the right failed to find Vertonghen.
Eric Dier tried a low sweeping shot from 25 yards across goal, but Courtois dove to his right and stopped it easily without conceding a rebound. It was also the Chelsea No. 1’s 26th save of the World Cup, moving him ahead of Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa for the most in Russia.
England’s best chance came to equalize came in the 70th minute as Dier and Rashford worked a 1-2, with Rashford sending Dier through on the right as Kompany slipped. Dier chipped it over a sliding Courtois, but Alderweireld did well to race behind him and clear it off the line.
Rashford drew a free kick 30 yards out on the right after being scythed down by Kompany, but the Belgian defender cleared out Trippier’s indirect cross for a corner by Rashford that was cleared away. The ensuing throw-in found its way to Lingard, who volleyed it into the middle of the penalty area where Jones headed it wide of the left post.
England continued to be the aggressor, drawing another free kick. Harry Maguire got to Trippier’s free kick and headed it just wide of the left post, but the linesman had raised his flag.
Mertens should have done better in the 76th minute when after De Bruyne picked him out on the left in a countermove, but he could not get the ball out from under his feet and horribly mishit a shot wide of the right post.
Maguire waas booked in the 78th minute before Martinez made his final substitution, introducing Mousa Dembele for Tielemans. England continued to pin Belgium in its final third, pinging the ball around looking for a crease.
But Belgium broke on the counter in the 80th minute as Mertens and De Bruyne broke out after a nifty 1-2 in the midfield. De Bruyne played it out left to Mertens, who reversed field with a cross to Meunier, whose searing volley for the far post was knocked away with a strong right-handed save by Pickford.
After Hazard’s goal, his third of the World Cup and Belgium’s 16th overall, the game completely opened up as the teams traded barnstorming runs for a spell. Even Kompany got into the act, making an intervention in his third and taking off in hopes Hazard would slot a return pass from the right.