ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – For Belgium and England, the third-place match at the World Cup was more like a dress rehearsal for future finals.
At least they hope.
The Belgians earned their best World Cup finish by beating England 2-0 on Saturday in a match both saw as the start of a push for the European Championship title in 2020 or the World Cup in 2022.
“With this winning mentality you can win trophies,” said Eden Hazard, who scored Belgium’s second goal. “In two years, in four years, we will be better. We have young players. They are very good also in the team. They push all of us.”
Thomas Meunier and Hazard both scored at St. Petersburg Stadium in a match between the two semifinal losers.
France and Croatia will play in the final on Sunday at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The French beat Belgium on Tuesday in the semifinals, while the Croats defeated England on Wednesday.
England matched its best World Cup result – fourth in 1990 – since winning the tournament for the only time in 1966.
“Today shows there’s room for improvement. We’re not the finished article. We’re still learning. We’re still getting better,” England striker Harry Kane said. “We don’t want to wait another 20-odd years to get into another major semifinal.”
Both Belgium and England were playing for the seventh time in 26 days, but the Belgians entered the match with an extra day of rest.
Meunier’s goal matched a World Cup record for Belgium by having 10 different players score in a tournament, something only done before by France in 1982 and Italy in 2006.
Meunier scored in the fourth minute, knocking a cross from Nacer Chadli past England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Hazard added the other off a pass from Kevin De Bruyne in the 82nd.
Toby Alderweireld denied England’s best chance of the game, sliding on the goal line to clear a shot from Eric Dier.
Belgium’s previous best finish at the World Cup was fourth, but the team outplayed England in the midfield to go one better this time.
The Belgians could easily have scored more, with Pickford making a good save to stop a shot from De Bruyne in the 11th and Alderweireld volleying narrowly over the bar in the 35th.
England made set pieces the cornerstone of its run to the World Cup semifinals and created chances for Harry Maguire and Dier in the second half. Neither hit the target with their headers.
It was the second time England and Belgium met in this year’s tournament. In the group stage, both teams had already qualified before Belgium’s 1-0 win in Kaliningrad.
England coach Gareth Southgate made five changes to face Belgium, but Danny Rose and Fabian Delph made little impact while Dier started slowly but threatened in the second half.
Phil Jones failed to intercept the pass which led to Hazard’s goal.
The two replacements in Belgium’s lineup were more effective. Meunier scored and Youri Tielemans dominated the midfield.
Kane is still placed to win the Golden Boot with a tournament-leading six goals ahead of Sunday’s final.
Kane last scored in England’s win over Colombia in the round of 16. On Saturday, he slipped as he shot wide in the first half, then failed to make contact with Jesse Lingard’s cross early in the second.
Romelu Lukaku couldn’t add to his four goals for Belgium and was substituted shortly after misjudging a through ball by De Bruyne.
Next stop 2020
The next major tournament is the 2020 European Championship, which will be played at venues across the continent but with the semifinals and finals in London at Wembley Stadium.
England defender John Stones said that could be a boost after the surprise run to the semifinals in Russia prompted a surge in support for the team at home. But Southgate said England still has a long way to go.
“We’ve finished in the top four, but we’re not a top-four team yet,” Southgate said. “Against the very best teams, we’ve come up short.”
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