Former Manchester United star Adnan Januzaj scored the winner for Belgium in Kaliningrad to deny England top spot in group G at the expense of Roberto Martinez’s side.
The game was a dull affair with very few chances, the best of which fell to Marcus Rashford in the second half who seen his effort go wide via the fingertips of the onrushing Thibaut Courtois.
England probed after going 1-0 behind shortly after the break, but couldn’t prevent defeat in their third and final group game before the round of 16 – where both Belgium and England will be present.
Ahead of the next stage of the competition, MM looks at five things we learned from last night’s scrappy contest.
1. Both teams have squad depth, but it does not match the first XI’s
Gareth Southgate made eight changes to the side that thrashed Panama 6-1 in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday, while Martinez made nine changes.
Both kept faith with their tried and trusted three at the back formation, and it paid dividends as the English and Belgian defences looked solid and gave away very few chances.
Nevertheless, one could infer that both teams were satisfied to play out a largely dull affair and progress to the knockout stages with no fresh injury concerns or suspensions – hence the multiple changes made by the managers.
For England, Rashford and Jamie Vardy’s strike partnership shown signs of blossoming at times, but they were largely nullified by the Belgian defenders. The same can be said for England’s defenders, who contained Michy Batshuayi well. Thorgan Hazard, brother of Eden, also had a quiet evening.
In midfield, captain for the night Eric Dier and Manchester City’s Fabian Delph offered little, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek shown glimpses of his undoubted talent but often lacked the final pass.
For Belgium, Premier League midfield duo Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele delivered strong performances, showing Martinez they can step in against a bigger team if needed – allowing Kevin De Bruyne more freedom to run forward.
De Bruyne, along with Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, will be back in contention to start Monday’s round of 16 game against Japan – where the trio could wreak havoc yet again just as they did against Panama and Tunisia in the first two group games.
2. Vardy looked sharp
One positive for England was the performance of Vardy, the Leicester City forward looked hungry, enthusiastic and desperate to make an impression on Southgate.
Just as he does for Leicester, Vardy chased down every ball and always looked to attack the space in behind which kept the Belgian defenders on their toes always. The Premier League winner in 2016 was unlucky not to grab an assist in the second half as Rashford fired wide.
He never gives defenders a second’s rest, and going into the knockout stages Southgate may want to consider partnering Vardy alongside Harry Kane in a 3-5-2 system – a striking duo which has the potential to destroy even the best defences.
England’s round of 16 opponents Colombia look to be strong in central defence, with Barcelona’s Yerry Mina and Kane’s club teammate Davinson Sanchez forming a strong axis at the back for the South Americans.
Although they are two deceptively quick centre-halves, Mina and Sanchez would be concerned coming up against the pace and guile of Vardy, which along with Kane’s strength and clinical finishing could be a deadly combination.
Raheem Sterling looked subdued in the first two matches against Tunisia and Panama, and although Southgate is likely to relent with the City forward, Vardy would be a better fit in a 3-5-2.
3. England missed Trippier
Trent Alexander-Arnold did very little wrong against Belgium, but his delivery doesn’t match that of Spurs’ Kieran Trippier.
In the first two matches, Trippier was arguably England’s stand-out player and his crossing was compared to that of David Beckham’s.
Trippier’s responsibility last night was passed over to Alexander-Arnold, who delivered a solid performance down the right-hand flank for England but couldn’t quite provide the service Trippier provided in England’s opening two games.
When able to cross the ball, or stood over a dead-ball situation, Alexander-Arnold’s delivery was a little off colour.
Take nothing away from the 19-year-old’s performance, but in the absence of Trippier England lacked the quality from crosses and dead-balls which the former Burnley man provided and was England’s main threat against Tunisia and Panama.
4. Januzaj has still got it
When he burst onto the scene for United while under David Moyes in the 2013/14 season, Adnan Januzaj was compared to the likes of Johann Cruyff and Cristiano Ronaldo at just 18 years of age.
His United career never quite materialised in the way Ronaldo’s did, and he now finds himself playing his football at Real Sociedad in the Basque country of Spain, following largely unsuccessful loan spells with Borussia Dortmund and Sunderland.
Januzaj’s sensational brace he scored against Sunderland for United in October of 2013 now seems like a lifetime ago considering how his career has mapped out, but last night he reminded everyone he’s still got talent.
Playing as a right-wing back, Januzaj well and truly won his personal battle with Danny Rose who couldn’t prevent the Kosovo-born winger cutting inside and scoring the only goal of the game early in the second-half.
Still only 23-years old, there is still time for Januzaj to resurrect his career and go on to play at the highest level consistently and if he plays the way he did for Belgium against England, he’ll be doing his chances no harm.
5. England will face Colombia in the round of 16
England have only won two knockout games at the World Cup since 1990, and if they want to make it three they have a tough task on their hands against a Colombia side who topped group H ahead of Japan and Senegal.
It could be the case that Colombia’s star man James Rodriguez will be ruled out of Tuesday evening’s game through injury, but whether he plays or not it is expected to be a tight contest which could go all the way to penalties.
England and Colombia are two very evenly matched teams on paper, and in the coming days both teams will no doubt be preparing for the scenario of extra-time and penalties.
The Three Lions know the situation all too well, and Tuesday could be another nail biter for English football fans who will be hoping that Southgate’s men get that bit of luck they’ve not had in years and decades gone by.
Images courtesy of ITV, with thanks.