Belgium's Tielemans and Mertens end England's Nations League hopes

England’s Nations League dream is over but, really, that has long been of secondary importance. What Gareth Southgate has wanted this season as he looks ahead to the serious business of the European Championship finals next summer has been cohesive performances, particularly against the better opposition.

They do not come much stronger than Belgium, who sit atop the Fifa world rankings, and there had been the hope that England could get on to the front foot and ask questions of them in a way that they did not truly do in the reverse fixture at Wembley last month, even though they were victorious. That 2-1 win owed plenty to resilience and a little bit to luck.

This was a strange game to call because, although England lost, there were aspects of the display that offered encouragement. Harry Kane, who won his 50th cap, said that England had dominated and it was possible to see where the captain was coming from.

Southgate’s team hogged the ball, they bossed the shot count and they played the vast majority of the second half in Belgium territory. With Jack Grealish shining on his first competitive international start, England got into dangerous areas and they created chances.

In attacking terms, it was the most positive performance of this Nations League campaign and yet the final action routinely eluded England. The broader picture, meanwhile, shows that in five ties, they have scored only three goals. Two of them have been penalties, with the other being Mason Mount’s deflected winner against Belgium. It is not good enough. Southgate’s only hope is that if the team continues to play like this, the tide will turn and the results will follow.

Belgium were 2-0 up after 23 minutes and England could barely believe it, having started brightly. The opening goal was part self-inflicted, part bad luck, with Belgium enjoying a dividend from their desire to press high up the pitch at the outset.

England tried to play out from the back, with Eric Dier looking for Mount only for Jan Vertonghen to nip in, win the ball and initiate a quick transition. The home team worked it up to Romelu Lukaku who found Youri Tielemans and his low shot took a slight deflection off Declan Rice and then a bigger one off Tyrone Mings to beat Jordan Pickford. The England goalkeeper got his fingertips to the ball and diverted it against the post and in.

Belgium’s second goal was frustrating for England on more than one level, although it was a beauty – Dries Mertens getting his free-kick to curl up and over the defensive wall and beyond Pickford’s dive.

Up to that point, England had threatened to equalise and should the free-kick have even been awarded? Rice’s howl of anguish after he was adjudged to have fouled Kevin De Bruyne as the Belgium midfielder unloaded a shot told its own story. He knew that he had got a touch to the ball before he made contact with De Bruyne and the TV replays backed him up.

Dries Mertens scores from a free-kick to double Belgium’s lead in the first half.



Dries Mertens scores from a free-kick to double Belgium’s lead in the first half. Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Southgate’s lineup had been influenced by who he did not have, with Raheem Sterling having joined a lengthy list of absentees before kick-off with a minor calf problem. Without Sterling, England were one short of the permitted 12 substitutes and, in his absence, Southgate persisted with Grealish on the left. The manager’s major decision was to prefer Mount to Jadon Sancho on the right.

With Kane up front, it was a front three of technique and nuance rather than blistering pace, although the approach was partly born out of necessity. Marcus Rashford was also injured. As with everything for Southgate, it is a question of balance.

Grealish seized his opportunity and he played with a fearlessness, a determination to impose his game on the occasion. There were trademark runs, some lovely flicks and, above all, the impression of a player at home on this stage. When Grealish was on the ball it seemed as though he could make something happen.

England created chances in the first half, with the closest they came being when Kane beat Jason Denayer on 12 minutes to meet a corner. The header flew past Thibaut Courtois only for Lukaku to head off the line, having dropped back to cover the post.

England had their moments in open play, too. Grealish was denied by an excellent Toby Alderweireld block after closing in on a Kieran Trippier cross and he would have another shot blocked; Mount volleyed high from a Grealish cross and Courtois denied Kane at close quarters.

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England pressed harder on to the front foot in the second half, with the substitute Bukayo Saka prominent at left wing-back, even if the suspicion was that Belgium were happy to invite them on. They wanted to strike on the counter and they almost did so late on. Lukaku forced Pickford into one smart save and flashed another shot wide.

Mount and Trippier wasted free-kicks for England from good positions while Kane scuffed one shot at Courtois when well placed and was off target with two more – the first after a wonderful flick and run by Grealish. The ball would not go in.

source: theguardian.com

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