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England 2-1 Belgium

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With criticism of Gareth Southgate rife this week, you would think coming from behind to beat Belgium – the number 1 ranked side in the world – that the critics may just give him a break, however on this performance, the jury is still out. A 2-1 win via a penalty and a colossal deflection does little to ease the doubter’s minds that were we to face the Belgians when it counts; we would come up trumps, with our 2018 defeats at the World Cup still fresh in the memory.

Southgate’s biggest criticism his overly cautious line-ups, with England fans concerned that our vast pool of young talent may go to waste. 8 defensive players started the game with man of the match against Wales, Jack Grealish, shoehorned out of the starting eleven by the eventual match-winner, Mason Mount. Jordan Henderson captained the side on his return from injury whilst Harry Maguire was trusted to play in a back three, despite shipping 6 in his appearance previous against Tottenham. Jadon Sancho was the only one of himself, Tammy Abraham and Ben Chilwell, to be in the squad after the trio broke COVID rules by attending a party the week in the days before.

The Belgians were without one of their star men, Eden Hazard; however, Kevin De Bruyne is capable of providing enough star quality and swagger on his own. Romelu Lukaku also returned to England on the back of an incredible season and was looking to score his first Wembley goal, despite five previous appearances at the national stadium.

It was a game of two halves, the first very much dominated by the visitors. Eight minutes into proceedings, England boasted 79% possession without any Belgian fears that they were to take the lead. A side with three right-backs and two holding midfielders playing looked inept of creating quality chances as Southgate’s pragmatic England passed it sideways and backwards.

When Belgium eventually got hold of the ball, it was a different story. A swift Belgian attack in which Lukaku could not connect with the ball provided a warning to England, which they did not learn from. Moments after, in the 11th minute, Yannick Carrasco found himself time and space in the box before coolly beating Jordan Pickford. However, the flag would deny him on this occasion, with the linesman allowing people the chance to grab a cup of tea before eventually coming to the correct decision.

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Just 4 minutes later, Belgium did land the first body blow of the bout. At his clumsy best, Eric Dier clattered into Lukaku with the striker wide of the goal and the ball on his weak foot. It was no doubt a spot-kick, yet the referee decided to follow in the linesman’s footsteps by taking an age to make the decision. When he did, however, Lukaku sent Pickford the wrong way to extinguish his Wembley hoodoo. It was also the first goal England had conceded in precisely one year, since a 2-1 defeat to the Czech Republic the year previous.

Belgium stepped up the pressure in a first half which displayed the levels between the number 1 ranked side and Southgate’s side. De Bruyne fizzed a shot straight at Pickford, whilst Thomas Meunier saw his effort bobble just the wrong side of the upright. England were at risk of being blown away.

On 38 minutes, England were gifted a route back into the game. During a corner that offered minimal threat, Thomas Meunier put his hand on Henderson’s shoulder, who hit the deck like a sack of spuds. A soft penalty given the minimal contact; however, it was lazy from Meunier, and Henderson had every right to go down. Up stepped newly crowned MBE, Marcus Rashford, to send former Liverpool outcast Simon Mignolet, the wrong way to round a fantastic week for the impressive, young, United forward.

England went in at halftime having been outclassed, but credit where it’s due, they came out for the second half level, and a much improved second half saw England take control of this tie. Romelu Lukaku, who bullied England’s defence in the first half, struggled to get into the game after the break, with England’s defence being noticeably tougher on him.

It was a game of two halves as in the second period, Belgium were not able to cut through England with such ease. England were organised and restricted the Belgians much more effectively whilst posing slightly more threat themselves.

In form, Dominic Calvert-Lewin blazed a shot into the upper echelons of the empty Wembley Stadium, before having a rather ambitious penalty appeal correctly waved away, on what was a quiet afternoon for the Evertonian striker.

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Shortly after, an ascending England completed what looked at one stage an unlikely comeback, shortly before the hour mark. Mason Mount squared up Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld, in the box, before cutting the ball onto his right foot and crashing a shot off of the Belgian. No keeper in the world could have done anything about the looping deflection which took it into the top corner, let alone Simon Mignolet.

Belgium did have one golden chance to level the scores as Kevin De Bruyne, who had a quiet game by his stratospherically high standards, picked a pass perhaps only he and Lionel Messi could. A sumptuous pass with the outside of his boot played in Yannick Carrasco; however, his deft touch just whistled wide of the post.

Rashford came close to adding a third for England, and his shot whistled just over the crossbar, but England would go on to win, nevertheless. England finished the day on top of their Nations League group, having beat the best international side in the world. Massive credit to Southgate because it wasn’t pretty, and Belgium were the better side, so it would always be an uphill task. But he and his team found a way, which in tournament football is a priceless asset.

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