July 15, 2018

Horse 2442 - Belgium Wins The Match That Nobody Wants To Be In

Belgium 2 - England 0 
Meunier 4'
Hazard 82'

The Third Place Playoff is the game that nobody wants to play in, and nobody is really quite sure why it exists other than to sell advertising space and extra tickets. This is the only match in the whole tournament which actually manages have less prestige than an Olympic football fixture and that's saying something. Nevertheless, the sides that make it here still generally try, if for no other reason than nobody likes to lose.

From the kickoff, Belgium looked like they wanted to be there and if England did, they certainly did not want to be there after just four minutes.
England had been pressing forward for short period, if only half-heartedly, which left them seriously exposed at the back. A very deep ball was sent over the center of midfield and Lukaku was able to bring it down and send a lovely short pass to Meunier who only needed one touch to blast it into the goal.

England responded with glacial pace and it took an entire eight minutes for them to get the ball back to Belgium's 18 yard box, and until Trippier  swung in a ball which Loftus-Cheek headed wide of the goal. Five minutes later, Sterling released Kane who should have been looking to add to his personal tally in chasing the tournament's Golden Boot but from 17 yards away, the best and last that he did.

I'd like to say that something else of significance happened in the first half but it really didn't. This match was played at even less intensity than the first time that these two sides met in the group stage match.

The second half wasn't a whole lot better except that England kind of remembered that they were playing an international match at the World Cup and sort of tried. Trippier  made a run deep into the corner and sent a ball inwards that would have meant that Kane would have scored his seventh of the tournament, but Kane at full stretch didn't manage to put a foot on the ball and the chance inside the six yard box went begging.

After another period on the counter attack, Dier layed off to Rashford who sent it back to him, and he was unmarked in front of goal but the shot was cleared off the line by Bel 2. That was emblematic of England's entire tournament. They could very easily get to the opposition's 18 yard box and then subsequently have no idea about how to get the ball around the defence.
Belgium on the other hand, knew exactly what to do and how to go about doing it. With England showing extreme impotence in front of their defence, Belgium would sit back and then explode forward. In the 79th minute, they took just seven touches to take the ball from their own six yard box to Meunier winning a corner at the other end of the field.

The final nail in the coffin of England's campaign came in the 82nd minute when Eden Hazard saw the English defence part like the red sea and not even the heroics of Jordan Pickford was enough to stop him. Hazard's finish was direct and clinical and even though England won a free kick late into the match, they wouldn't come close to troubling Belgium's goal.

Of these two sides, Belgium must surely feel the most hard done by. Had they lost against England in the group stage, they would have passed down that side of the draw and would have found Croatia to be an easier opponent. The still would have met France in the final but at least it would have been in the final. Third place is Belgium's best ever result in any tournament but somehow it still doesn't seem like enough.
England on the other hand have just had the most successful campaign in 28 years and to make it to a semi final after so many years of false dawns and so called "golden generations" that have turned out to be alfoil, is itself remarkable. England should have crashed and burned well before now and I'm surprised that it took as long as it did for the universe to right itself and for England and to remember that it is England and therefore rubbish at football.

The next major tournament for both of these sides is the European Championships in 2020, which will be as close to having the tournament in England without officially doing so because if they can escape the group stage and the Quarter Finals, then the remaining matches will be at Wembley. Euro 2020 officially isn't being hosted in one country but all of them, but this still means that the tournament has to be held somewhere.

I think that the only remaining question of Russia 2018 will be not whether or not France does beat Croatia but by how much. I expect that the engraver is already practicing writing the word "France" to go onto the trophy as we speak.

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