ST PETERSBURG: The end is in sight. Belgium finished third in the World Cup by defeating England 2-0 in the losers’ playoff, leaving England’s likely consolation as the top scorer prize for captain Harry Kane writes KEIR RADNEDGE
Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard scored one goal in each half to see off an England team who flared to life only in the latter stages of the game which nobody ever wants to play. Debate will run for some time over Belgium should take pride in their best-ever World Cup finish or kick themselves that their so-called ‘golden generation’ did not achieve more.
The ‘golden generation’ label is developing into something of a curse. Portugal and England, over the last two decades, have been failed to match the grand expectations aroused in fans by an over-enthusiastic media.
England finished fourth in Italy in 1990 in their single previous appearance in the ‘consolation final.’
Afterwards manager Gareth Southgate refused to be carried away by England’s progress at the finals but had encouraging words for his players as he looked forward to further improvement at Euro 2020 in which England will play a key role, staging seven matches including both semi-finals and final.
Southgate said: “We’ve finished in the final four but we’re not a top-four team yet. Against the best teams we’ve come up short. But we’ve had a wonderful adventure and some experiences that will stand this group of players and staff in good stead for the future. I couldn’t ask any more.”
However, Southgate added that “we need to keep improving”, noting that overall England — who before yesterday’s game were level with Saudi Arabia for shots on target — need to develop better attacking play. Notably, England lacked a creative playmaker. Nine of their 12 goals came from set pieces including three of golden boot contender Harry Kane’s six goals.
Southgate’s most outstanding proteges have been goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, centre-backs John Stones and Harry Maguire and right wingback Kieran Tripper. Both Everton’s Pickford and Leicester’s Maguire may not remain too long with their current clubs.
More will be expected from ‘inside forwards’ Jessie Lingard and Dele Alli as well as Raheem Sterling whose failure to score a goal in three years is not the standard expected at highest international level. But the revivalist achievement of this team added to the positivity sparked by last year’s world junior successes of the under-17s and under-20s.
Southgate’s managerial skill will attract attention from clubs but he is expected to see through his England project until at least 2020.
He said: “It’s going to be brilliant. We’re going to have a tournament where the players are going to experience as close to what we experienced in 1996 and 1966. That’s incredible for everybody – and we’ll have the players inspired by what’s happened over the last few weeks.”
But first comes the Nations League and a return to competitive reality against none other than Croatia.