As the saying goes, to be the best you need to beat the best!
Well, Gareth Southgate’s England did exactly that on matchday 3 of the UEFA Nations League when they overcame a mighty spirited Belgium (2-1), the best team in world football as per the FIFA rankings.
The venue was the Three Lion’s fortress, Wembley, where the hosts have won 20 of their past 21 competitive fixtures, scoring 67 goals while conceding only 10.
Truth be told, the ranking divide isn’t really massive between these two teams, with England holding the no.4 position in world football, only to be separated by France and Brazil trailing the Red Devils.
So, this made the contest even more captivating and enthralling with two more than evenly matched teams.
Belgium had three notable absentees through injuries – star attacking midfielder and captain Eden Hazard, first-choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and forward Dries Mertens, whereas England had to start without their regular skipper and forward Harry Kane, who had a tweaked a muscle in training.
However, the absence of these key players on both the sides didn’t take the sheen off the game and the contest was more than exciting for the respective fans and the neutral.
So, let’s dig into how the contest unfolded between the two European giants.
Romelu Lukaku and Belgium boss the first half
England started the game confidently with a chance being created through young forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin when he had a good interplay with Marcus Rashford albeit unfortunately not mounting the shot on target.
Belgium soon came into their own and showed why they are the best in world football when in the 14th minute, Romelu Lukaku drew an unwise challenge from England’s Eric Dier to earn a spot-kick.
Lukaku converted the penalty as he crashed the ball past England’s goal keeper Jordan Pickford to give him his 53rd goal for the Red Devils amid justifying how important he has been for Roberto Matinez’s side as they marched along to consolidate their numero uno ranking in this beautiful game.
The score read England 0, Belgium 1. Wembley, the Three Lions and me were scarred by this early shock!
What’s more, as a result of this early scar, England continued to struggle as Belgium created another opportunity in the 19th minute through a decent interplay among stand-in captain Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco and Alex Witsel, with right-back Thomas Meunier hitting the shot wide.
England deservedly make a come back
England in the latter part of the first half improved their game after being dominated by The Red Devils early, and their performance paid dividend when in the 38th minute, Belgium’s Thomas Meunier obstructed and pulled back Jordan Henderson inside the penalty box to concede a spot-kick.
Manchester United star Marcus Rashford took the challenge and didn’t disappoint, hitting it past Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet to help England draw level.
In the bargain, Rashford became the fourth United player to score in four consecutive competitive appearances for England, after Sir Bobby Charlton, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney (x2).
Come the end of the first half, the teams shared the spoils locked at one apiece amid a tale of two spot kicks.
Mason Mount too hot for Belgium to handle
Topping the table to increase the chance of qualifying for the semi-finals was the need of the hour, and England understood this sentiment better when they started the second half playing a high tempo of fast football to create a chance in the 53rd minute – an effort by Trent Alexander-Arnold which was deflected off Belgian defender Jason Denayer for a corner.
The magical moment for Mason Mount and the Three Lions came in the 64th minute when the English and Chelsea midfielder scored, albeit a deflection off Toby Alderweireld, taking the ball past Mignolet deep into the corner of the Belgian net.
England were 2-1 up, though a bit lucky but luck always favors the brave and the hosts were exactly that.
Belgium came close to again drawing level in the 72nd minute when Yannick Carrasco got a mouth-watering cross from Kevin De Bruyne only to roll it wide of the English net having deceived keeper Jordan Pickford.
England were again very lucky albeit not in the brave sense as their defense was all but ball watching.
The Three Lions had an opportunity to go up by two goals, when Marcus Rashford, unfortunately, hit the ball over the crossbar in the 85th minute with a more than able assist from his England compatriot, West Ham United’s defensive midfielder Declan Rice.
At the end of full time, England kept their lead and won the game 2-1. The Three Lions surely made a statement last night by beating the best and topping the table enroute to the Nations League semi-finals.
Denmark at Wembley next this coming Wednesday – a challenge that the Three Lions can definitely surmount?
Well as an English faithful, I would say an affirmative yes!