England’s World Cup campaign ended with a 2-0 defeat in Saint Petersburg by a strong Belgium side that meant that Gareth Southgate’s men finish Russia 2018 in fourth place.
His side were unable to recover from the disappointment of an extra-time Semi-Final defeat by Croatia in Moscow on Wednesday evening, but he will return home with his squad after the game knowing that he delivered England’s most credible World Cup performance in 28 years. Hal Walker breaks down the action.
Belgium prove superior to England
English hopes of delivering their best World Cup finish since the victorious 1966 tournament were dealt an early blow after they went behind after four minutes. Thomas Meunier slid in ahead of Danny Rose to convert Nacer Chadli’s cross beyond Jordan Pickford. England were largely inferior throughout the first period and required several important John Stones tackles to prevent going further behind.
Southgate’s side picked up in the second half and had chances to level: Toby Alderweireld clearing a chipped Eric Dier effort off the line and Harry Maguire heading wide from a promising position. Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku missed two good chances, and was subsequently substituted on the hour without scoring- leaving Harry Kane in pole position for the golden boot with six goals to his name. However, Chelsea’s outstanding Eden Hazard, sealed the game on 82 minutes, receiving Kevin De Bruyne’s incisive through ball to coolly slot past Jordan Pickford.Embed from Getty Images
An anti-climactic end to a memorable tournament
It was a deflating send-off for an England side who had restored a sense of footballing pride to a nation – who before the Russia 2018, had won just two World Cup knockout fixtures in four tournaments. It was, in many respects, a game too far for the Three Lions but the English contingents in the stands remained after the game to applaud their physically and mentally-drained players. Their performance in this competition equals their Italia 90 standing as their second-best finish at any World Cup in history. Harry Kane summed up the squad’s feeling after the game and said:
“I can’t fault the lads, we gave it everything. We’ve closed the gap but today shows there’s room for improvement. We’ve said that all along. We’re still learning and still improving.”Embed from Getty Images
A tournament that restored national unity
Though it may not have exactly have “come home”, there were many rather less ambiguous symbolic positives that did in fact return. The phrase itself was an expression of confidence, hedged with sheer irony that practically swept the nation. However, it also expressed a sense of footballing pride and a form of solidarity that had been missing for several previous tournaments – involving so-called “golden generations” that repeatedly failed to live up to frenzied expectations.
Kieran Trippier alluded to this after the game and said:
“I can speak on behalf of all the players: every time they get called up for England, they all love coming here. There are no egos, no nothing. Everybody just wants to play for England.”
There were players within this side who fans could identify with, who were not seen as “celebrity figures” and crucially, who were replicating their form and tactical roles shown throughout the domestic season with their respective clubs.
What does it mean for the future?
England will return from Russia 2018 with reputations enhanced, self-belief increased and a new sense of optimism, which will of course bring with it a heightened sense of expectation around the national team.
From the goalkeeper to the forward line, England possess a healthy, young and vibrant side who should benefit from this tournament experience.
In his post-match interview, Gareth Southgate vowed to use the heartening performances from England’s run to the Semi-Final as a springboard to future success:
“We have to coach and develop, and the players need a willingness to learn and improve, and they’ve shown that in the last seven weeks in particular. That continues, but we leave here having progressed a lot.”
A tournament full of surprises, underdogs and shock early departures from the bookies favourites, FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 has been a tournament to remember and one that has lifted the English spirit and brought the nation together in more ways than one.
You can follow Hal on Twitter @HalWalker