The third place play-off – the one game nobody wants to be involved in going into the final week of a World Cup.
But unfortunately, for two teams after the midweek semi-finals, the match-up became a stark reality. Twenty-two players having to dust themselves down, and go again for one final hurrah, despite the disappointment of coming so close, yet so very far, lingering over their heads.
It is very rare that two nations meet on more than one occasion during a World Cup, and a lot has changed for both Belgium and England since their group stage meeting last month.
Had things been different, we could have had a Group G rematch for a final, but instead, these two European powerhouses did battle for bronze, and the right to at least take something away with them from their efforts at Russia 2018.
Bronze for Belgium as Red Devils blow England away for second time
Belgium registered their best ever World Cup finish and will be heading home with bronze following a comfortable win over England in St Petersburg.
Wing-back Thomas Meunier opened the scoring inside five minutes with his sixth international goal, and talisman Eden Hazard wrapped things up in the closing stages to condemn England to successive defeats.
It was a disappointing end to an uplifting tournament for the Three Lions, but ultimately the final week of Russia 2018 proved too much for Gareth Southgate’s men who recorded their joint-best World Cup performance on foreign soil.
Both side’s made changes in a bid to bounce back quickly from their respective semi-final defeats – Belgium made two as Meunier and bright prospect Youri Tielemans came in for Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini, whilst England freshened up further with five alterations.
And perhaps it was the Belgians keeping a bit more of a consistency about their side that led to them taking the lead in just the fourth minute – despite the goal being scored by the incoming PSG man Meunier.
Starting at the back with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, the ball was floated up towards halfway and nodded down to striker Romelu Lukaku, who found himself with time and space to pick a pass.
The Manchester United frontman played an incisive pass through to Nacer Chadli, and the quarter-final hero’s low ball into the box was met by Meunier who got in front of Danny Rose and poked home beyond Jordan Pickford from six yards out.
It was the perfect start for the Red Devils as Meunier wheeled away in celebration, but the cracks were evident in the English defence as Southgate’s side struggled with their Croatian hangover from three days prior.
The England backline was rocking, and it could have been two after John Stones failed to deal with Lukaku’s ball, allowing the defender’s Manchester City teammate Kevin de Bruyne the chance to shoot, but his effort was deflected and saved by Pickford before being thumped to safety.
But amidst all the Belgian domination, a chance for the Three Lions.
Eric Dier’s ball over the top found Raheem Sterling on the edge of the box. He cut inside and layed it into the path of Harry Kane, but the striker – in search of his seventh goal of the tournament to extend his lead in the race for the golden boot – could only skew the effort harmlessly wide.
Kane had another half-chance after the interval, but failed to get on the end of substitute Jesse Lingard’s venomous cross-cum-shot; missing it by inches.
De Bruyne looked in fine form as he then created the perfect chance for two with a seemingly effortless pass through to an unmarked Lukaku, but a poor touch allowed Pickford the chance to smother the ball.
And the 6 ft 3 ins striker was almost made to pay soon after, as England carved open the Belgian defence and forged their best chance of the game.
After receiving the ball from Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Dier played a neat one-two with Marcus Rashford and with that was in one-on-one with Courtois. The Tottenham man then showed great composure to bear down on goal and dink it over the onrushing goalkeeper, but rushing back onto the line was his club teammate Toby Alderweireld to superbly clear the danger.
Meunier then nearly had his name on the scoresheet for the second time with what would have been a solid contender for goal of the tournament.
Some stunning one-touch football from Roberto Martinez’ troops culminated in Dries Mertens floating a cross to the back post for the wingback, but his fizzing volley was brilliantly kept out by Pickford with a strong right hand.
But Belgium did eventually get their insurance goal with less than ten minutes on the clock, and it was their two brightest sparks who connected to provide it.
De Bruyne was the driving force behind the move again, and his pass through to Hazard left Phil Jones struggling to sort out his feet, and the Chelsea winger got in behind the man who brought him down for the match-winning penalty for his club in the FA Cup final, to calmly finish past Pickford and put the result beyond doubt.
The Belgians comfortably saw the game through to claim their first ever medals-finish at football’s elite international tournament, but despite that there will still be those left wondering what might have been for Roberto Martinez’ golden generation.
England on the other hand finish in disappointing fashion, but Gareth Southgate and his charges will go away with their heads held high – knowing they reunited a nation that for so long has lacked genuine direction, leadership and togetherness.
Player of the Day – Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Eden Hazard may have seemed a strange choice as captain to some in a Belgium squad that contained the likes of Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen, but the tricky winger has more than silenced any critics.
Having led from the front throughout the tournament, the Chelsea man’s three goals – as well as numerous attacking moves – contributed heavily to what will go down as his nation’s best ever World Cup, and today’s success against England was no different.
Hazard is used to bamboozling defenders in the Premier League, and with a number of regular opponents on the St Petersburg pitch during this third place play-off, it’s no surprise that the winger was running rings around those trying, and ultimately failing, to pin him down.
His late goal means that, since 1966, no Belgian has contributed directly to more World Cup goals than him – seven (three goals and four assists). Only Jan Ceulemans, who played in three versions of the tournament, can equal that tally.
It speaks volumes for the type of player Hazard is and just how vital he is to the Belgium setup.
The Chelsea man will be 31 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around. For football’s sake, let’s hope he’s still just as effective, effervescent and exciting to watch then as he is now – the World Cup, particularly this summer, is a better place for it.