St Petersburg: A slick Belgium produced a spirited performance befitting their pre-tournament reputation to get past England 2-0 and finish third in the FIFA World Cup here on Saturday.
Goals from Thomas Meunier (fourth minute) and Eden Hazard (82nd) helped Roberto Martinez's "golden generation" of footballers to their best-ever finish in the competition after losing the third-place playoff in the 1986 World Cup. England, seeking their best-ever finish since 1966 when they lifted the trophy, were guilty of spurning a flurry of chances. While Belgium lost to France in the first semi-final, Croatia got the better of England in the second last-four clash. Belgium were off to a perfect start when in the opening exchanges Romelu Lukaku's pass sliced open England's napping defence and found Nacer Chadli. He crossed for Meunier who had ghosted past England full-back Danny Rose and stabbed home from close past past in-form goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. It was the earliest goal ever scored by Belgium in a World Cup match, and it made Meunier the 10th player to score a goal for Belgium in the competition, matching a record held by France in 1982 and Italy in 2006. Bearing a look as if they are still licking their wounds of the semi-final heartache, England looked the second best outfit for some time after the goal as Belgium turned on the heat.
Midfielders Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Eric Dier put in industrious shifts to bring England back in the game by keeping Belgians at bay as the game neared its half hour mark. England's best chance came when Raheem Sterling set up top-scorer Harry Kane nicely but the Tottenham Hotspur striker could not connect properly and shot wide of target. Leicester City stopper-back Harry Maguire also came close from a corner while Loftus-Cheek showed enterprise. Meanwhile, after setting up the goal, and scoring that famous winner against Japan, Chadli's World Cup ended in disappointment as he limped out and was replaced by Thomas Vermaelen. In the second half, England got their best chance when Dier was clear on goal but his chipped attempt beat goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois but Toby Alderweireld cleared off the line near the right post. Maguire also came either side of Dier's opportunity but his headers were wide. Kane also failed to get on the end of a perfectly weighed pass from substitute Jese Lingard in the 70th minute.
Hazard then capped the scoring in the 82nd minute with his third goal of the World Cup when he collected a pass from the excellent Kevin De Bruyne that deflected off Phil Jones' right heel and calmly finished past Pickford in the bottom left corner. Lukaku had a good chance to increase his tally but the Manchester United forward failed to grab it. However it hardly mattered as England could not find their opening goal till the end of the match. (IANS)