It may be meaningless to many, but the unloved third-place play-off match can produce significant ramifications.
For Belgium, there is a bronze medal, of course, which is of little consolation to a team going for a colour to match their ‘golden generation’ tag. And for their captain, Eden Hazard, it was the opportunity to announce his determination to leave Chelsea for Real Madrid. When players do media duties during the World Cup, they rarely talk about their club careers until they are out.
And so Hazard, having collected the man-of-the-match award that should have gone to his co-star, Kevin de Bruyne, wasted no time in repeating his desire to join the world’s biggest club, where a Cristiano Ronaldo-sized hole has suddenly appeared.
Talking to a handful of trusted Belgian journalists in the mixed zone, he put his own future in the mixer with this bombshell: “After six wonderful years at Chelsea, it might be time to discover something different. I can decide if I want to stay or go, but Chelsea will make the final decision — if they want to let me go. You know my preferred destination,” he said.
None of this slipped out by accident. Rather, it was prompted by the knowledge that his stock is as high as it gets, after some thrilling performances on the world’s biggest stage, combined with a sense of yearning for him in Madrid and chaos at Chelsea, whose decision to appoint Maurizio Sarri, last week, was the worst-kept secret in football.
The announcement was only held back because they already had a manager. Antonio Conte refused to budge unless he was paid off, Chelsea refused to play ball, and now, having sacked him, they are refusing to pay up the remaining year of his contract. It’s messy and classless, and Hazard has seen it as the perfect opportunity to wriggle out, the way he dribbles his way out of trouble when defenders are on his shoulder.
On Saturday, in St Petersburg, he made a handful of such runs, before scoring in the 84th minute, twisting and turning past the hapless Phil Jones, before drilling a low shot inside Jordan Pickford’s near post.
Hazard enjoys playing against Jones, who fouled him for the penalty that cost Manchester United the FA Cup final in May.
Jones was one of five changes that Gareth Southgate made, as he tried to freshen up his side after their long and painful defeat by Croatia in the semi-final, but it did not have the desired effect. Jones was poor from the start, when he allowed Nacer Chadli to race into the space he’d vacated to cross for Thomas Meunier, to finish from close range.
At least Jones lasted longer than Danny Rose on the opposite flank, who was hooked at half-time, after looking out of sorts. Rose appears a troubled soul and he, too, could be on the move this summer, with Tottenham apparently willing to let him go.
There is no chance, however, that Daniel Levy will listen to offers for Harry Kane, who ended his first World Cup with the Golden Boot. Half of his six goals were penalties and another was a deflection off his heel, and Kane faded as the tournament went on, looking increasingly laboured and possibly unhappy in a system that does not create the sort of chances he gets at Tottenham. Southgate and his assistant, Steve Holland, are aware that England do not have a Christian Eriksen, or De Bruyne, whose passing was a thing of beauty, once again, on Saturday.
The chances England create tend to fall to the number eights, Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard, whose finishing is patchy, or to Raheem Sterling, whose finishing is non-existent. The Manchester City forward has not scored an international goal in his past 26 games, and provided only one assist. He was given one more chance by Southgate in the number-ten role, but, ineffective again, he was also taken off at half-time.
Sterling’s poor performances have divided opinion among public and pundits, but one thing that has not is the sense that this is an England side going places at last. Southgate and his team have renewed national pride in the side. Kane reflected: “It’s been a long time together and we can be extremely proud of what we’ve achieved.
“I don’t think we’ve really understood what’s gone on (in England), because we’ve been in a bubble, and focused on the games. But we’ve heard it’s been pretty mad back home. We’re excited to go home, see our families, and I’m hoping the place will be happier. I know a lot of people would have loved this summer and we’ll be talking about it for years. But the most important thing, from our point of view, is that we’re not waiting another 20 years for another one. It’s important we learn from this and take this experience for the next five, ten, and 15 years.”
There will not be the same recriminations at home as there were after England’s defeat by Iceland two years ago, under Roy Hodgson. This time, they are returning as heroes, to some extent.
“The most important thing is obviously getting the fans back on our side, which was massive. We are going into a tournament (Euro 2020) where we could be playing a lot of games at Wembley, our home, if we qualify. It’s exciting and that’s the contrast from two years ago.
“From Iceland to this semi-final, when the fans stayed behind afterwards, cheering, that’s massive. We’ve connected with our fans and the people back home. So it’s important we carry on doing that and the best way to do that is winning games and playing a certain style, which we feel we do better.”
Courtois 7; Alderweireld 7, Kompany 7, Vertonghen 7; Meunier 7, Witsel 7, De Bruyne 9, Tielelemens 6, Chadli 6; Hazard 8, Lukaku 5
Vermaelen for Chadli 39, Mertens for Lukaku 60, Dembele for Tielemens 78,
Pickford 6 ; Jones 4, Stones 7, Maguire 7; Trippier 7, Dier 6, Delph 6; Loftus-Cheek 5, Rose 5; Sterling 4, Kane 6
Rashford for Sterling 46, Lingard for Rose 46, Alli for Loftus-Cheek 84
Airleza Faghani (Iran)