In the last round of the group G in the World Cup, England met Belgium to fight for the top spot. Both teams had already secured passage to the knockout stage by beating the other two teams in the group – Tunisia and Panama, so the game bore no importance in that aspect. It was set only to decide the potential opponent in the round of 16 for these two nations. The winner would play Japan, while the runner-up would be set to face Colombia.
Given the strain of the competition, potential booking-caused suspensions and injuries, both coaches opted to rotate their teams rather heavily for this game.
England’s Gareth Southgate put Jordan Pickford between the posts, the trio of Phil Jones, John Stones and Gary Cahill in defence, Eric Dier to anchor the midfield helped by Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph. Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold charged up and down the flank as wing-backs, while Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy were tasked with representing danger in attack.
For Belgium, Roberto Martinez selected Thibaut Courtois in goal, the trio of Thomas Vermaelen, Dendryck Boyata and Leander Dendocker at the back, Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele in the middle of the park flanked by Thorgan Hazard and Nacer Chadli, and Michy Batshuayi supported by Adnan Januzaj and Youri Tielemans upfront.
A Balanced First Half
As the game kicked off, it became apparent that even though the line-ups were rotated, both coaches had a few tactical aces up their sleeves. For England, it was particularly pleasing to see how well Rose and Delph combined on the left side. They would even change positions occasionally, which is something that suits Delph particularly as he played almost the entire 2017/18 season as left back for Manchester City. Just how much trouble for Belgium the two players were creating can be clearly seen through the fact that the two bookings of this game were both picked up by Belgium – Tielemans and Dendocker; and both on their right (England’s left) side, and both for fouls on Danny Rose.
Between the two forwards, Rashford was the one tasked with dropping to help in the buildup while Vardy represented the focal point as the furthest man up.
But Belgians themselves had their own tactical ideas. It comes as a surprise no more that Fellaini, who has just agreed a new two-year deal with Manchester United, became a second striker alongside Batshuayi every time the ball went wide. Even though Rose looked very good going forward, at the back he and Cahill had problems with stopping Januzaj from sending useful crosses in, something Fellaini thrives on. Meanwhile, Dembele went about his business in midfield in his own recognizable style – extremely physical in contesting for the ball, very calm and smart in possession.
Belgium caused some worries for England twice early on. In the 6th minute Tielemans scorched the palms of Pickford with a very awkward 20-yard shot, and four minutes later Januzaj got in a fine cross to the back post that Fellaini headed back into the middle towards Batshuayi. A desperate scramble ensued from which the ball almost went over the goal-line, but Cahill managed to clear at the last split-second.
There were no more real chances in the first half and the score remained goalless at the break.
The Livelier Second Half
Harry Maguire replaced Stones for the second half for England, and Cahill took up Stones’ position in the centre of the defence, while the Leicester defender played on his left.
That, however, looked to be the only thing different to the first half in the first five minutes of the second. But things quickly sprang to life as Tielemans set Januzaj up for a one-on-one with Rose just inside the box. In the same manner he managed to squeeze crosses past Rose before, now the former Manchester United winger squeezed a shot that hit the far top corner, out of Pickford’s reach and into the net. Belgium were in the lead.
The game immediately livened up. The ball went from one end of the pitch to the other much quicker. England were getting more on it, holding possession and attacking more which was understandable given the result. Rashford started making dangerous runs into space opened up by Vardy’s smart positioning and drawing the Belgium centre-backs out, and in one such move England had their best chance of the game.
Minute 66 was passing when Vardy dropped deep again and himself put the ball through for Rashford. The youngster broke out one-on-one with Courtois and sent the ball past him, but wide of the mark.
It was notable at this point how Belgium’s midfielders slightly wavered in their composure. Nerves and fatigue were creeping in. Dembele wasn’t looking quite as dominant as before and started losing duels against Loftus-Cheek. Fellaini went back to his old self and resorted to throwing elbows at faces and ribs, and it’s a real curiosity how he escaped being booked all evening even though fouls were being given against him.
With just over 10 minutes remaining, Southgate tried to make something happen by introducing Danny Welbeck for Alexander-Arnold and moving Rashford out wide, but all the Arsenal forward had to show for himself was a ridiculously ruined chance after a quick free-kick cunningly taken by Rose.
In the 86th minute, Dries Mertens entered the fray instead of goalscorer Januzaj and two minutes later he hit a powerful shot that took some saving by Pickford, but the Everton ‘keeper was up to the task. In the stoppage time, Thorgan Hazard found the run of Fellaini from deep with a lovely through pass but Fellaini’s shot hit the outside of the net.
Belgium finish top of group G having won all three of their games, and will therefore face Japan in the round of 16 on Saturday. Meanwhile, England in second place square up to face Colombia, the winners of group H. In the battle for pride between the two teams certain to go out of the tournament, Tunisia beat Panama by 2-1.
ENGLAND: Pickford 8, Jones 6.5, Stones 7 (46′ Maguire 7.5), Cahill 7.5, Dier 6, Loftus-Cheek 7.5, Delph 7.5, Alexander-Arnold 7.5 (79′ Welbeck 5), Rose 8, Rashford 7.5, Vardy 7.
BELGIUM: Courtois 8, Vermaelen 7.5 (73′ Kompany N/A), Boyata 8, Dendocker 7.5, Dembele 7.5, Fellaini 7.5, T. Hazard 7, Chadli 6.5, Januzaj 7.5 (86′ Mertens 8), Tielemans 7.5, Batshuayi 7.
GOAL: Januzaj 51′.
YELLOW CARDS: Tielemans 19′, Dendocker 33′.
RED CARDS: None.
REFEREE: Damir Skomina (Slovenia).
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