England missed the chance to finish with a flourish as Belgium ran out convincing 2-0 winners in the World Cup third-place play-off in Saint Petersburg.
Thomas Meunier opened the scoring with just four minutes gone but despite their dominance, Roberto Martinez’s side had to wait until the 82nd minute to settle the bronze medal match, Eden Hazard converting a pass from another familiar tormentor, Kevin De Bruyne.
Victory in the cruellest game of the tournament represents Belgium’s best finish at a World Cup but England, much improved after the interval, should at least boast the Golden Boot winner in six-goal Harry Kane, even if the Tottenham striker endured another frustrating afternoon.
Gareth Southgate’s side head home following an inspiring, restorative campaign in which they rekindled their connection with supporters, but the gulf in class during spells of this farewell outing keeps in sharp focus the challenges ahead as they seek to build on the promise.
Southgate had urged his players to end on a high after an “emotion-filled” few days, but Belgium had the lead inside five minutes when Romelu Lukaku exploited midfield space to play in Nacer Chadli and Meunier then beat Danny Rose to meet the cross.
Lukaku should have found Hazard just moments later, wrongly looking right rather than left, but Belgium continued to break quickly with England fragile and after a John Stones mis-kick, Jordan Pickford had to push away a De Bruyne effort.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Harry Maguire offered fleeting threat with headers, before Kane snatched at a ball neatly laid off by Raheem Sterling, yet Southgate’s weary-looking side – overrun in midfield with their forwards peripheral – remained second best.
Southgate swapped Sterling and Rose for Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard, and the latter’s half-volley across goal shortly after the restart only just evaded Kane’s lunge as England returned with overdue zip.
Lukaku headed straight down the tunnel after being substituted on the hour, a heavy touch when through on goal his last offering, but the man he failed to chase down in the goalscoring charts was toiling himself, this time with a miscued volley.
Eric Dier’s goalbound dink following a give-and-go with Rashford was cleared off the line by Toby Alderweireld, before Maguire headed wide from another fine Kieran Trippier delivery as England stayed in search of the equaliser.
Pickford pulled off a fine late save to deny Meunier but Hazard sealed the victory when he finished off a flowing move, England’s tournament reaching a meek conclusion but their Russia adventure overall one to live long in the memory.
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