Belgium records best World Cup finish with victory over England.
Having previously contested the match no team wanted to win, Belgium and England now squared up in the match neither side wanted to play.
When these two teams last met, the outcome would determine which would finish top of Group G and consequently navigate the so-called ‘harder’ route to the final.
The loser, however, would find itself on the easier side of the draw, avoiding the likes of Brazil, Argentina and France.
In the end, the route to the final mattered little and both sides, having lost in their respective semifinals, found themselves in Saint Petersburg to contest the maligned third-place play-off, with Belgium coming out on top thanks to goals by Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard.
Perhaps the players would have preferred to be on holiday after a long season, but it didn’t show in what was a blistering start to the game.
England appeared to be dominating before a typically piercing Belgium counterattack saw Nacer Chadli square the ball for Meunier to tap in at the far post in the fourth minute.
Managers Gareth Southgate and Roberto Martinez had provided the pre-match fighting talk, pointing out that both sides could yet make their own history.
Third place for England would have been the nation’s second-best performance at a World Cup, and the best on foreign soil.
“We’ll either go home having shown improvement and equaled every team that has left our shores,” Southgate told ITV before the match.
“Or we put in a performance and go home with a medal and become the best ever team to have left our shores.”
Third place for Belgium, meanwhile, would have been its highest finish in World Cup history.
After Meunier’s opening goal, Belgium looked the more motivated, while everything England did appeared to be lethargic.
In midfield, Kevin De Bruyne and Hazard ran the show, splitting England’s defense apart at will.
Chances for Romelu Lukaku and another for Meunier came and went and England looked relieved to hear the half-time whistle, which prevented another Belgium corner.
When the teams emerged after the restart, England — with the introduction of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford for Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling — gradually got a foothold on the game.
By the time the final 20 minutes came around, Belgium were hanging on for that bronze medal.
After some intricate passing on the edge of the area, Eric Dier had his effort cleared off the line by Tottenham teammate Toby Alderweireld, before Thibaut Courtois smothered Harry Maguire’s header.
But Belgium still posed a danger and another scintillating counterattack, arguably its best of the tournament so far, ended with Jordan Pickford producing a stunning save to deny Meunier his second.
In the end, it was another counterattack which finished England off and it was the match’s two outstanding players who produced it.
Belgium’s players celebrate their play-off victory over England. Photo: Getty Images.
De Bruyne’s threaded pass found Hazard in behind England’s defense and the Chelsea man slotted the ball inside Pickford’s near post.
There were to be no goals for a quiet Harry Kane but the striker’s six goals look to be enough to win the golden boot, with only Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe — both on three — within reach ahead of Sunday’s final.
It was an anticlimactic way for both these teams — which have given their fans some thrilling moments in Russia — to end the World Cup, but Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ leave with bronze and a deserved piece of history.