Belgium asserted its position as the top team in Group G as they won over England. Now the Belgians await Japan in the Round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup.
It was a match that neither team ostensibly wanted to win. England and Belgium entered their Group G finale at the 2018 World Cup already knowing that both teams would advance. No matter what happened between Panama and Tunisia, both European sides were guaranteed passage to the Round of 16.
But the path to the semifinals was vastly different depending on where each team finished in the group. Belgium was behind England entering the match, thanks to one more yellow card picked up in the first two matches combined. That positioning seemed mighty attractive for the Belgians.
With the Group H finales already in the books, England and Belgium both knew that winning Group G would result in a date with Japan. The Japanese side beat out Senegal for the second spot in Group H thanks to fewer accumulated yellow cards. And if the Group G winner can get past the Asian side, either Brazil or Mexico will await in the quarterfinals.
Finishing instead as the runner-up in the group would set up a Round of 16 matchup with a hot-and-cold Colombia side dealing with an injury-hampered James Rodríguez. Taking down the South Americans would offer up a follow-up showdown with either Sweden or Switzerland. Ultimately, the more attractive path to the final four seemed to lie with the team that finished out of the top spot.
Why did Belgium seem so motivated to take down England?
Tied on points with England entering their final Group G match at the 2018 World Cup, Belgium ceded much of the possession to the Three Lions throughout much of the first half. Playing with almost an entirely new roster, Belgium started nine new players against England. Only goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and center back Dedryck Boyata played in all three group matches for the Red Devils.
The Belgians nevertheless generated the bulk of the scoring chances. As the half wore on, Belgium generated nine shots. Three ended up on goal, forcing Jordan Pickford into making solid saves. England’s defense cleared another ball off the line milliseconds before it rolled the rest of the way over.
Though the general wisdom would make the runner-up position seem more favorable for the two teams advancing out of Group G, Belgium appeared intent on snatching first place in the table. But while England seemed disinterested in scoring goals, they also seemed happy keeping their opponents off the scoreboard as well. Thus Belgium went to the locker room locked squarely in second place in the group. That was due to the fact that Belgium accumulated two more yellow cards in the first two matches.
That all changed in the second half. Six minutes after the restart, Adnan Januzaj scored the go-ahead goal. Starting for Dries Mertens, Januzaj uncorked a left-footed blast that beat Pickford soundly.
England turned up the heat, more for pride than for competitive advantage. They threatened the Belgium goal and made Courtois sweat a couple of times. But England also showed a propensity for missing the target too frequently. Marouane Fellaini came up big in the 83rd minute. Fellaini had a shot that had Courtois beat as it made its way to the goal line, knocking it out for an England corner. It would be the best chance England enjoyed all night, and it was thwarted soundly.
Belgium, in the end, proved they are the class of the group
The Belgians showed their strength throughout the group stage. Romelu Lukaku sits level with Cristiano Ronaldo and one behind English star Harry Kane in the table of goal scorers. A 3-0 blowout of Panama kicked off the competition. Belgium followed up with a 5-2 drubbing of Tunisia. And the positive result over England ensured that Belgium was one of just three teams to advance to the Round of 16 with a perfect record in the group stage.
At this point, Belgium earned what looks like a slightly harder path to a World Cup championship out of Group G. But Belgium also looks like the best team in that quarter of the bracket, playing better at the moment than Brazil, Mexico, or Japan. They have the goalkeeping, the defense, and the diverse array of options on the attacking end to threaten any and all challengers.
Anything less than the semifinals would be a disappointment for this Belgium side. Could this be the year when Belgium’s golden generation finally puts everything together and runs all the way through the World Cup field?