A duel between the 32 best teams in the world is not supposed to have inconsequential games where sides take it easy, none whatsoever bothered about the result. But the Group G encounter between a promising England side and the golden generation of Belgium was treated as another knockabout in the park, with both teams assured of a spot in the next round.
England brought in eight new faces, with Leicester City forward Jamie Vardy getting his first start of the World Cup with skipper Harry Kane sitting out. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez went one better, changing as many as nine players – keeping the likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne on the bench – from the starting XI that bulldozed Tunisia.
The urge to top the group remained largely missing in the players and the game needed a moment of brilliance from Adnan Januzaj, the former Manchester United starlet, to make a dent on the score-line as the 1-0 win allowed Belgium to top the group to take on Japan.
Youri Tielemans had the first shot on goal when he tested Jordan Pickford with a snapshot from 25 yards out in the sixth minute, the Everton goalkeeper used strong hands to block the effort with no Belgium players around to take advantage of the rebound.
The Belgians, enjoying early possession, again attacked the English goal in the 10 minute with Marouane Fellani heading down a Januzaj cross for Michy Batshuayi inside the box. The Borussia Dortmund forward’s flick spouted through the England goalkeeper’s arm and needed a goal-line intervention from Gary Cahill to keep the score deadlocked.
The young Trent Alexander-Arnold was England’s standout player in the first half, with his bright runs down the right wing posing some uncomfortable moments for Thorgan Hazard and Thomas Varmaelen. The match, however, failed to reach any great heights with proceedings often mimicking a friendly, as was suspected at the start of the play.
The second-string England defence, though, again needed a last-ditch clearance from Alexander-Arnold in the 27 minute after a penalty box scramble saw Fellani hoicking the ball goal wards.
Almost at the restart, Marcus Rashford, ambling down the left, found the end of a Vardy cross, but his side-footed curler zoomed wide. Immediately after, England paid the price for its lackadaisical approach as Januzaj gave Belgium the lead, capping of a brilliant individual run. The 23-year-old waltzed inside the box to cut past the English left back Danny Rose, before curling the ball past an overextended Pickford in the 51st minute.
England had its best chance of the game a quarter of an hour later and it was Vardy who again played a wonderful ball to Rashford bombing down the left-inside channel. The youngster’s swirling strike, however, was finger-tipped wide by a hardly-tested Thibaut Courtois.
The Vardy-Rashford forward-line was guilty of some wayward shooting with England just managing to keep five of its 11 shots on target (compared to Belgium’s 10 out of 13).
The introduction of Danny Welbeck late in the second half did little to alter the course of the game with Belgium happy to take the win and the possibility of facing the colossal Brazil in the quarterfinals.