MOSCOW — Belgium defeated England 2-0 to win third place in World Cup 2018 on Saturday, with an early goal from Thomas Meunier and a late insurance strike by Eden Hazard accounting for the scoring.
The Belgians were the better team, even though England had more of the possession in the second half, which was eventually neutralized by the ever-present Belgian counterattack. The result secured Belgium's best finish ever at a World Cup, while for England, the fourth place matches its 1990 feat as the best result since winning it all in 1966.
Both Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku failed to score, leaving the English forward as the heavy favorite to win the Golden Boot in Russia. His six goals are three more than France's Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe have entering Sunday's final.
Here are my three thoughts on the game:
• Belgium’s counterattack will be one of my favorite memories of this World Cup
There’s just something about the way Belgium countered with such speed and skill in this tournament that was an exhilarating pleasure for anyone who witnessed it. We saw it in the late game-winning goal against Japan, the best team goal of the tournament, featuring Lukaku’s classic double-drag run and dummy in the box. We saw it in Belgium’s game-winner against Brazil, when Lukaku against did tremendous work to create for Kevin De Bruyne on the break. And we saw it again in the third-place game against England, when Eden Hazard finished on yet another counter and Belgium created additional chances coming back in the other direction.
Too often we look at counters as examples of pure speed. But as Belgium showed, it’s also about knowing what do and how to execute that at speed that makes the difference.
• Meunier showed why he was missed against France
The PSG right wingback didn’t play in Belgium’s semifinal loss to France due to a yellow-card suspension, and while Meunier doesn’t get the accolades of his better known teammates, he made it clear again vs. England with his early goal that he is one of Belgium’s most dangerous attacking players. Could Meunier have helped open things up against France with his speed and slashing skill? I think so.
In the end, the changes that Roberto Martínez had to make for the semifinal—inserting Mousa Dembélé, who was disappointing—were a downgrade from having Meunier available.
• What comes next for these two teams?
England is the current world champion at the Under-20 and Under-17 levels, and the challenge now will be to find playing time for those players at the club level, whether it’s in the Premier League or in other leagues like Germany's Bundesliga.
As England looks ahead to Euro 2020, Gareth Southgate will have to try to find ways to score in the run of play more than England did during this tournament while still keeping the set-piece threat that was so present here in Russia.
As for Belgium, Martínez will have to set as a goal winning Euro 2020 with a supremely talented generation that finally achieved real results at a major tournament here but will still want to win a trophy that matters together. For me, Belgium was the most consistently entertaining team at World Cup 2018, and I expect the Belgians will keep playing with that swashbuckling style.
Grant Wahl has covered soccer for 22 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, details the craft of soccer position by position. You can order it here.