Belgium 2-0 England: England has lost the last hope

Dries Mertens clips in a free-kick to make it 2-0
Dries Mertens clips in a free-kick to make it 2-0

England’s hopes of making back-to-back Nations League finals are over after they fell to a 2-0 defeat away to world No 1 side Belgium.

Youri Tielemans’ deflected drive on 10 minutes got the hosts off to a fast start in Leuven and, after England passed up a couple of good opportunities to hit back immediately, Dries Mertens (23) clipped home a fine free-kick after a controversial foul was called against Declan Rice.

England spent most of the remainder of the match on the front foot, with half-chances falling to Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, and Harry Kane who, on his 50th appearance for his country, had seen an earlier header cleared off the line by Romelu Lukaku.

But there was no way back against a Belgium side who have not lost a competitive home match for over a decade and now England’s attentions will turn to their final Nations League Group A2 fixture against Iceland at Wembley on Wednesday.

While there will be little riding on the outcome of that one – England are guaranteed to finish third, with Belgium and Denmark playing for a place in the finals – Gareth Southgate will have to use the fixture with Iceland to look for solutions for next summer’s European Championships, where England will hope to compete with the likes of Belgium for the trophy.

How England’s Nations League challenge ended in Belgium…

England, wearing black armbands in memory of their former goalkeeper Ray Clemence, knew a victory would realistically be needed to maintain their hopes of making the Nations League Final Four next October, and Kane fired a low effort wide in the opening minutes.

But it was Belgium who took the lead when Eric Dier carelessly sent a pass to Jan Vertonghen and then couldn’t prevent Romelu Lukaku laying off for Tielemans to shoot in off the post after clipping a couple of England defenders.

Alderweireld then got in the way of another Grealish strike on 15 minutes but England’s positive response was soon quietened. Mertens whipped an impressive free-kick over an England wall which failed to jump in unison, after Rice was judged to have fouled Kevin De Bruyne, despite replays showing the West Ham midfielder beat his opponent to the ball.

Thibaut Courtois denies Harry Kane's shot from a tight angle
Thibaut Courtois denies Harry Kane’s shot from a tight angle

Mason Mount shot over from a Grealish cutback six-yards out and then headed wide from a corner after Kane’s shot was blocked by ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois as England pushed to get back into the game, and that intent was maintained after the break, with Mount and Grealish off target soon after the restart.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Jadon Sancho were thrown on in a double change with 20 minutes to play as Southgate tried to find a way through but while Kane flashed a shot wide, Lukaku almost made it 3-0 to the hosts when he forced Jordan Pickford into a sharp stop.

The Belgian then turned Dier inside out before firing wide from another counter-attack in the final moments, as England head back to Wembley still wondering over which personnel or system will get themselves up to the level required next summer.

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