England’s World Cup campaign in Russia ended with a defeat against Belgium in St Petersburg that meant the Three Lions finished in fourth place.
Gareth Southgate’s team were unable to bounce back from the despair of Wednesday’s extra-time loss against Croatia in the semi-final in Moscow – but this still represents a highly creditable tournament for England.
Thomas Meunier put Belgium ahead after just four minutes when he slid in ahead of Danny Rose to divert Nacer Chadli’s cross past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
England had chances to level in the second half as Toby Alderweireld cleared off the line from Eric Dier, while Harry Maguire also headed wide from a good position.
Eden Hazard wrapped it up for Belgium with eight minutes left when he got the better of Phil Jones to beat Pickford, who had just saved magnificently from Meunier, with a powerful finish.
Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku missed two chances and was substituted without scoring, leaving England captain Harry Kane in pole position to win the World Cup’s Golden Boot with six goals.
Kane will collect the award barring remarkable deeds from France duo Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, who are on three goals apiece, in Sunday’s final against Croatia in Moscow.
Southgate made five changes to the team beaten by Croatia, but there was still a clear determination to secure their best result at this tournament since 1966.
And with Belgium counterpart Roberto Martinez adopting the same approach, it made for an entertaining play-off in this magnificent arena in St Petersburg.
It would have been easy for England’s heads to drop after defensive sloppiness from Danny Rose – who allowed Meunier to slide in on his blind side – led to them falling behind so early.
England, as others have before them, struggled to cope with the variety of Belgium’s attack, but their attitude was once again commendable and they had chances to pull the game level before Hazard snuffed out their hopes.
Alderweireld miraculously cleared Dier’s clever chip off the line, before he and Harry Maguire headed wide from good positions as England pressed.
This is a fixture regarded as an unwanted intrusion for teams who have suffered the despair of a World Cup semi-final defeat, but Belgium and England made it competitive.
It was, in some respects, a game too far for England after the disappointment of Wednesday’s loss to Croatia – but to go home having finished fourth at this spectacular World Cup in Russia is no disgrace.
England defender John Stones, apart from one lapse that let Mario Mandzukic in for Croatia’s winner in Moscow on Wednesday, has had a magnificent World Cup.
And he ended it with a flawless performance in St Petersburg, doing more than anyone to keep Belgium’s outstanding attack at bay.
Stones produced a standout moment in the first half when he retreated in the face of Lukaku running at him, biding his time before making a perfect tackle.
He was the barrier on countless occasions and even got a handshake from his Manchester City team-mate De Bruyne for one late interception.
Stones’ ability to play out from the back and his cultured style are integral to Southgate’s future plans – and he has performed in this tournament in exactly the manner his most fervent admirers hoped he would.
Belgium’s delight at a third-place finish – their best at a World Cup – was obvious in the manner in which Martinez and his assistant Thierry Henry celebrated with their players at full-time.
It meant a lot – although it could have been even better after beating Brazil in the quarter-finals only to then lose to France in the last four.
However, Martinez has a truly outstanding squad at his disposal and there is every chance they will now get stronger having gained stature here.
Any squad that boasts the attacking firepower they have in De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku, as well as their strength of squad elsewhere, is a force to be reckoned with – and this may be only the start of Belgium’s story as a rising football force.