Belgium 2, England 0

Third place playoff, St. Petersburg Stadium, St. Petersburg

Belgium was the better team from start to finish Saturday, beating England, 2-0, to earn its best finish in a World Cup.

The Red Devils scored the winning goal less than four minutes into the match, when Thomas Meunier shot a beautiful cross past England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, and Belgium never relented, even as the Three Lions dominated possession and created scoring opportunities of their own. Belgium scored again in the 82nd minute to seal the game, another brilliant goal from midfielder Eden Hazard.

Belgium had been to the third place match just once before in 1986, when it finished fourth.

England falls to 0-2 in third place games with the loss, but the Three Lions will walk away with their heads held high after a successful World Cup in which it exceeded fans and media expectations. Manager Gareth Southgate became a national hero during the tournament in leading the team, and Harry Kane is all but assured the Golden Boot with six total World Cup goals.

* * * *

GOOOOAAAALL!

Eden Hazard has put this game to bed. England had been dominating the half in possession and scoring chances, but couldn’t find the back of the net, and now the Three Lions are in a 2-0 hole with less than 10 minutes, plus stoppage, to go.

Hazard has been the best player on the pitch today, continuing a truly spectacular World Cup for the 27-year-old midfielder. He has three goals and four assists across the tournament.

Substitution

Mousa Dembélé enters in the 78th minute. Youri Tielemans comes out for Belgium.

WHAT. A. SAVE.

Toby Alderweireld, the defender and definitely not a goalie, made perhaps the save of the game for Belgium in the 69th minute. England’s Eric Dier had an open net with the Belgium goalie out of position and on the ground. Dier’s soft shot was one bounce from crossing the line before Alderweireld streaked from nowhere to clear the ball. England might not get another chance like that. What a save.

Golden Boot race is over

Romelu Lukaku just subbed out in the 60th minute. Dries Mertens subbed in. With Lukaku out, Harry Kane of England will almost assuredly be the Golden Boot winner with six goals.

A narrow miss

Romelu Lukaku nearly put Belgium up two goals in the 56th minute after Kevin De Bruyne threaded the ball through the smallest of holes right to the foot of Lukaku. Lukaku couldn’t corral, and England’s Jordan Pickford safely scooped the ball with a diving slide.

Opportunities for England, then a caution

England got a couple changes to run set pieces before 10 minutes had passed in the second half, including a corner, but Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was in position each time. Just after the corner, John Stones picked up the first yellow card of the day for England.

Halftime update: Belgium 1, England 0

Thomas Meunier’s goal 3 minutes 37 seconds into the game remains the only score of the day. It was the fastest ever goal scored by a Belgium player at a World Cup.

It hasn’t been a great start for England. It has dominated the time of possession, maintaining the ball 56 percent of the time, and has more shots on goal (3-2), but the Three Lions still trail — and haven’t looked like they’ve dominated anything.

As for the game within the game, Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane both remain scoreless to keep the Golden Boot race at four goals to six, respectively. Lukaku has been receiving the ball frequently in the attacking half and has gotten inside the 18-yard box several times. He got the ball one-on-one late in the first half stoppage period, but was unable to separate for a scoring chance.

Substitution

Belgium’s Nacer Chadli headed off in the 37th minute with an injury. The Red Devils played with 10 men for a couple minutes, before Thomas Vermaelen came on in the 39th. Chadli provided the cross on Belgium’s opening goal.

England’s defense shaky to start

Belgium still only has two shots on goal, but the Red Devils are creating scoring chances and it feels like Belgium has been a pass away nearly every trip down the pitch. With the opening 30 minutes behind them, the Three Lions should feel lucky they’re still just down one.

Early chances

Both sides have had opportunities in front of the nets. The box score reads two shots on goal apiece, but the netminders have had to be active in the first 18 minutes, coming out of goal frequently to challenge balls as the attacking players have penetrated deep into the 18-yard box.

GOOOAAAAL!

That didn’t take long. Belgium’s Thomas Meunier received a cross from Nacer Chadli and buried it to give the Red Devils a 1-0 lead in the fourth minute.

Meunier was suspended against France due to yellow card suspension. Belgium lost that game 1-0. Hmm…

Familiar opponents

England and Belgium are very familiar with each other. They’ve played 23 times across nearly a century of competition. England leads the series with 15 wins against five draws and three losses. But Belgium did win the group-play match earlier in this World Cup, defeating the Three Lions, 1-0, to claim the top seed in the group. The two sides have met three times before Saturday in the World Cup, ending in a draw (1954), England win (1990) and this year’s Belgium victory.

Changes to the lineups, but Kane and Lukaku will start

At least to start, England’s Harry Kane and Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku will be in for their sides today. Kane is in first place for the Golden Boot entering Saturday’s match with six goals. Lukaku trails with four. Their attacking counterparts, Raheem Sterling and Eden Hazard, respectively, will also start.

The Three Lions shuffled their remaining lineup a bit, making five changes from the side that lost to Croatia in extras. Belgium made two shifts, notably inserting Thomas Meunier, who returns from suspension.

Kane, Lukaku pursue the Golden Boot

“The last thing players will want to do as the dust settles on their semifinal exits is contemplate a meaningless match to compete for a largely pointless prize.” — Louis van Gaal, who managed the Netherlands to its 2014 third-place win.

It’s a game that does not prompt the question of “who?” or “when?” More often than not, the question surrounding the match is “why?”

Playing for third.

Belgium and England, fresh off historically disheartening losses, must play again for the glory of bronze in the 2018 World Cup. The match is about very minor bragging rights and, for FIFA, additional gate revenue at the expense of teams that just want to go home.

But the truth is that people watch it. Television rating are usually strong — the World Cup addicts, perhaps, beginning to ween themselves off their drug of choice with only a pair of games to play — and usually well-contested.

Since first played in the 1934 tournament, the match has been used to set world rankings, give young players their first taste of the World Cup and decide the coveted goal-scoring crown known as the Golden Boot.

That happened just the second time the game was played. In 1938, Brazil faced Sweden and the canarinho star, Leonidas, scored twice to secure the scoring title.

Twenty years later, France’s Just Fontaine used the match to extend his goals lead. He scored four in the match against West Germany, ending the tournament with 13, a record that has only been semi-seriously challenged once (by Gerd Mueller, who in 1970 needed a hat trick in the third-place game to tie Fontaine but was shut out for the first time in the tournament.)

This year the tournament’s two scoring leaders — England’s Harry Kane and Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku — may feature.

Will they? Managers often use the third-place game to give players who have yet to see time on the field an opportunity to experience the World Cup.

The other thing about this match is that it very often has a lot of goals, the result of having the mountains of pressure lifted from players for the first in weeks.

The verdict is out on whether the third-place game has a salutary “getting back on the horse” effect for despondent teams.

The West Germans won the third-place game in 1970 and went on to win it all four years later. But the Dutch didn’t get the same lift in 2014.

“This game should never be played,” Dutch Manager Louis van Gaal said. “I’ve been saying it for the past 10 years.”

It was played, and his team beat the Brazilians, still reeling from the 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany, by a score of 3-0.

The Netherlands failed to qualify for this World Cup. Brazil? Flamed out in the quarters.


When: Saturday, 10 a.m. Eastern.

How to watch on TV: Fox.

How to stream online: Fox Sports, the Fox Soccer Match Pass apps and FoxSportsGo.com.

How to watch in Spanish: Telemundo.

How to watch in Canada: Bell Media’s TSN and CTV networks, the TSN GO app and TSN.ca/live.

Team Profiles

Belgium

  • Previous results: In group play, defeated Panama, 3-0; defeated Tunisia, 5-2; defeated England, 1-0. Defeated Japan, 3-2, in the round of 16. Defeated Brazil, 2-1, in the quarterfinals. Lost to France, 1-0, in the semifinals.
  • Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 1986.
  • Notable: Belgium remains the World Cup’s top scoring team, with 14 goals in its six matches.
  • FIFA world ranking: 3. ELO world ranking: 3.

England

  • Previous results: In group play, defeated Tunisia 2-1; defeated Panama 6-1; lost to Belgium 1-0. Defeated Colombia in the round of 16 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw. Defeated Sweden, 2-0, in the quarterfinals. Lost to Croatia, 2-1, in the semifinals.
  • Best World Cup finish: Champion, 1966.
  • Notable: England had the second youngest squad at this year’s World Cup.
  • FIFA world ranking: 12. ELO world ranking: 7.

Players to watch

The starting lineups are likely to change — perhaps significantly — from each side’s semifinal match. This makes any forecast a cloudy one. But if they play, all eyes will be on England’s Harry Kane and Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, possibly the best reasons to watch this consolation game. Kane leads the Golden Boot standings with six goals, while Lukaku has four. Lukaku has scored all of his from open play. But he has failed to score since the tournament’s second game, a cold streak that contributed to Belgium’s semifinal shutout against the French. Half of Kane’s goals have come from the penalty spot. His last goal came in the round-of-16 match against Colombia — from the penalty spot.

This article was originally published Friday in The Post’s World Cup newsletter. Sign up to receive smart analysis, opinions and more through Sunday’s final.

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