St Petersburg: Belgium achieved their best World Cup finish as goals from Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard secured a 2-0 victory over England in Saturday’s third-fourth place play-off here.
Meunier, who missed the semifinal loss to France due to suspension, scored after just four minutes before Hazard grabbed a late second as Belgium eclipsed the side that came fourth at the 1986 edition. Belgium have now defeated England twice in a fortnight, having waited 82 years to beat them before winning 1-0 in their group stage encounter.
Gareth Southgate’s men were forced to settle for England’s joint best performance at a World Cup abroad, matching that of the 1990 generation. He made five changes to the team beaten 1-2 by Croatia in the last four, as England fielded their youngest World Cup line-up in history – with an average age of 25 years and 174 days.
Phil Jones, Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Fabian Delph and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all came into the side, while Belgium boss Roberto Martinez recalled Meunier and handed a start to Youri Tielemans.
Meunier made a quick impression by firing Belgium in front following an attack started by Romelu Lukaku. The Manchester United forward released Nacer Chadli down the right into space behind the England defence, and his cross was turned home by Meunier who stepped in front of a static Rose.
Jordan Pickford readjusted his body superbly to deny Kevin De Bruyne a second time, the Everton goalkeeper clawing away the ball after a sizeable deflection off Kieran Trippier.
England slowly worked their way into the contest as Loftus-Cheek headed straight at Thibaut Courtois on 15 minutes. Harry Kane blew a terrific chance to add to his six goals in Russia, the favourite for the Golden Boot scuffing harmlessly wide after an inviting lay-off from Raheem Sterling.
Belgium lost Chadli to a hamstring injury before half time, while Southgate introduced Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard at the break for Sterling and Rose. Their pace and directness gave England renewed vigour, with Lingard volleying across goal just out of the reach of a lunging Kane.
With England pushing forward, Meunier nearly produced one of the goals of the tournament, his crisp volley from a Dries Mertens cross drawing an excellent one-handed stop from Pickford.
There was nothing Pickford could do though as De Bruyne and Hazard combined to wrap up the victory on 82 minutes, the latter drilling low inside the near post for his third goal of the competition.