Belgium deservedly claim bronze over England as Eden Hazard outshines Raheem Sterling
St. Petersburg -- Three points on Belgium's 2-0 win over England in the third-place game of the 2018 World Cup.
1. Belgium claim bronze as England fade
For many, it is a game that should no longer be on the World Cup calendar, but Belgium ensured that the Russia 2018 third-place playoff ended in their favour with a 2-0 win against England in St. Petersburg.
Thomas Meunier's fourth-minute opener and Eden Hazard's strike on 82 minutes sealed Belgium's second victory over Gareth Southgate's team at this World Cup and earned Roberto Martinez's men the bronze medal for finishing third.
It was a deserved win for Belgium, who bounced back from the disappointment of their semifinal defeat against France in the same stadium on Tuesday.
The extra day of recovery appeared to benefit the Belgians, whose strong starting team reflected that of England, who also fielded a side with the intention of winning this game.
But Belgium were too strong and slick, with Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Meunier dominating the game.
Meunier was only denied a second goal by the heroics of England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who produced a stunning 80th-minute save to keep out the Paris Saint-Germain star's volley.
England looked jaded after their extra-time defeat against Croatia in Moscow just three days ago, and they end this tournament having suffered three defeats in seven games -- a cruel statistic that does not do justice to their contribution to the competition.
But ultimately, Belgium were the better side in this game, and they deserve to head home having claimed a medal, albeit the colour that they desperately did not want.
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2. Hazard provides a blueprint for Sterling
Raheem Sterling has borne the brunt of criticism during this World Cup, with the England forward's final product the prime reason for him being singled out for greater scrutiny.
The Manchester City man divides opinion. Some believe his wasteful finishing and poor judgement in the final third count against him, while others defend the former Liverpool player by insisting he poses a constant threat to opponents due to his pace and movement.
In truth, both points are valid. Sterling is wasteful and a threat, and he was the same again here in St. Petersburg before being replaced by Marcus Rashford at half-time.
But still just 23, Sterling now has two World Cups under his belt, and he will hope to be at his peak by the time Qatar comes around in 2022.
To remain a key figure under Gareth Southgate, though, Sterling has to smooth off his rough edges and become more clinical in and around the penalty area.
He needs to find the killer pass more quickly and also convert the chances he gets.
He should look to Eden Hazard for inspiration, with the Chelsea forward showing in this game that he is on another level entirely to Sterling right now.
Hazard has a much better final ball, and he scores more goals at the international level, having hit three, including Belgium's second in this game, and provided two assists in Russia.
Despite numerous chances, Sterling has not scored at this World Cup, and he produced just one assist, so he has clear room for improvement.
3. Premier League influence dominates third-place game
There was a Premier League feel to this third-place playoff, with only three players among the 22 starters not plying their trade in England.
Every England player plays for a Premier League club, while eight of the Belgians in Roberto Martinez's starting XI also represent English teams, with only Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain) and Youri Tielemans (Monaco) playing for clubs out of the Premier League.
Those numbers would suggest that the lack of a winter break in England is not quite as debilitating as many have claimed, with both countries making it to the semifinals in Russia.
But the huge number of Premier League players on duty also rammed home the fact that, in just a month's time, many of them will be kicking off the 2018-19 season with their clubs.
All players are contractually entitled to at least three weeks off between seasons, so the Community Shield on Aug. 5 might come a day too soon for the Manchester City and Chelsea players involved in this game.
City had five players involved from the start, with three from Chelsea, so it is difficult to imagine Pep Guardiola or new Stamford Bridge coach Maurizio Sarri being overjoyed by the staging of this third-place game.
But one thing is for certain -- all of these players will be back on the club treadmill before they will feel they had a chance to pause for a breath.