Just inside England’s penalty area on the right, he fluttered one way, then the next, fooling Danny Rose, then cut back and curled one into the top left corner quite beautifully. Michy Batshuayi picked the ball out of the net and booted it hard; it cannoned off the post and back into his own face. It kind of summed the match up. Did they want to score? Didn’t they? They certainly celebrated as though they did.
With the potential of bookings deciding who topped the group, England went into the match with two yellow cards to Belgium’s three. When Youri Tielemans tripped Rose in the 20th minute for another, the Belgian supporters actually cheered. And again when Leander Dendoncker chopped Rose once more. They wanted second. They got first. England are on the easier side of the draw, but now face a tricky last-16 tie against Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday, rather than Japan, infinitely inferior opponents.
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez had made no secret of his desire to finish runner-up, thus making three of their four knockout games, were they to reach the final, in Moscow, where they are based for the tournament. Plus the group standings have created the “Half of Death” – Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and now Belgium. If the draw got any more lopsided it would topple over.
With a combined 17 changes – eight for England, nine Belgium – the game played out as expected; kind of awkwardly. Goalless by half-time, the players were jeered off. Supporters had travelled from far and at great expense to see this and they were being short-changed, by all the changes.
England’s support has swelled as the team have excelled in the tournament. There were more here in Kaliningrad than in Nizhny Novgorod, for Panama, and more there than Volgograd, for Tunisia. A rendition of “Vardy’s on fire, your defence is terrified” belted out from them close to kick-off. It felt like a proper World Cup match in the stands, even if it was a strange affair on it, with two of the best benches in World Cup history.
Jamie Vardy was chosen ahead of World Cup leading scorer Harry Kane – a bold call by Gareth Southgate to leave out his captain. Vardy was as persistent as ever. His touch, turn and ball to play in Marcus Rashford in the second half should have been converted for an equaliser.
If Southgate wanted second and the easier side of the draw, his message did not get through to the Leicester City striker. Telling Jamie Vardy not to try is like putting a slab of meat in the middle of the kitchen floor and telling your dog not to eat it.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, who became only the fourth teenager to start a World Cup match for England, following Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling and Michael Owen, played well but doesn’t stand a hope of usurping Kieran Trippier. Without the Spurs right-back in the side England were lacking, significantly, on set pieces, which had accounted for half of their goals in the previous two matches.
Southgate stuck with Jordan Pickford, who had barely made a save in the previous two matches yet conceded twice, in goal but he was not convincing. Six minutes in Tielemans’s shot swerved but was straight at him and he made a mess of the save. Four minutes later, the ball fell between Pickford and John Stones and the goalkeeper should have claimed it, but Batshuayi was able to poke it goalwards, and only Gary Cahill sliding back stopped it on the line.
This was more like the England we have been used to. None of this free-flowing, high-scoring football malarkey. Back to strangling the life out of the game. It was like welcoming back an old friend, then remembering why you stopped hanging around with them, all those years ago.
Whether this move has backfired will be determined next week against Colombia, ranked only four places below England in 16th place in the Fifa rankings.
Win and Southgate is the genius some have been billing him for the past three weeks. Lose and it will be, frankly, a disappointing tournament again for England – second in a group and out at the knockout stage.
Some of the positivity which had been building up around the England team was lost with this performance – lacking in the excitement of the previous matches in Russia. It is now over to Kane, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to bring it back. If England can rediscover the football they unearthed in the first two matches when Southgate reverts back to his first team, watch out Colombia.