Belgium's Eden Hazard lights the way for Three Lions' hearse in World Cup third place play-off Picture by PA
England’s World Cup dream may have died a grisly death upon Croatia’s sharp claws on Wednesday. Yet Saturday’s third place play-off – an open wake of sorts – offered ample chance to gawk at the Three Lions’ flaky carcasses and marvel at how they’d lasted so long before being plonked firmly into their box.
The signs for a nice, smooth state funeral weren’t all that good to be honest. Frustrated shamans Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard lurked with licked lips in Belgium’s starting line-up. Frustrating shambles Phil Jones lumbered with lethal liability in England’s equivalent.
There surely wouldn’t be enough Mass bouquets and/or Orthodox sympathy cards across eastern Europe and deepest Siberia to offer sufficient succour. Thoughts, prayers, stew and sandwiches can only do so much for a proud-cum-chastened nation facing its final curtain a day earlier than their choir had planned.
In ITV’s good room, awkwardness hung heavier than two fat bats on a gnarled rope. Pouggers, Gary Nev, Wrighty and Dixon moped and shuffled and filled the void with homily, pride and, er, finger-pointing galore as best they could muster.
Yet all four wore the miffed bakes of kids who’d lost their balloons at Funderland or similar. All four clearly needed the balm of tight hugs from their loved ones.
Roy Keane, meantime, wore the half-smirk of an omnipotent Rebel with helium-filled balloons every shape, size and colour under the sun inside a locked-up Hummer-style hearse out the back like.
A few quick autopsies from the boys later and it was thankfully over to Sam Matterface, Glenn Hoddle and their shortest of straws in St Petersburg. They would glumly steer us through the pomp and cremation in nearly 30 degrees Celsius of most unforgiving sunlight.
A quick pan of the crowd found some wistful fans in face paint, decked out in costumes fit for a, cough, World Cup final. Still, even the pints they swilled looked as flat as a lager top at turfing-out time in the Queen Vic.
“One last date in a summer of love,” groaned Sam with the conviction of a man who didn’t really know what life was about any more. Glenn, in between drilling sharpened skewers into his Raheem Sterling doll, just hoped there would be a few goals in it for us today, Sam.
Four minutes in – Boom! With a gargantuan hole roomier than Harry Maguire’s cranium appearing in midfield, the blistering Belgians lunged for the English jugular.
A glorious touch from Romelu Lukaku, honest to God, set Baggies make-weight Nacer Chadli free. He crossed and, with Danny Rose pondering the meaning of defence from his fancy-dan hole-peppered socks, Thomas Meunier sailed in to hammer the first six-inch nail home.
This wasn’t the start England wanted, griped Sam as the, er, end loomed. No, agreed Glenn, but Belgium were five years ahead of ‘our boys’, he reminded everyone for the 1,966th time, give or take.
Sam then moved on to some fairly nauseous midwifery chat and stuff. Glenn wondered what the hell Sam was on about before razing Raheem Sterling’s cojones to the absolute hilt.
De Bruyne and Hazard (inset) were now all over it with their finest alakazam. More chops than a butcher’s fridge and nutmegged laser passes by the coffin-load, England’s bronze bid was being strangled and mangled by the Red Devils’ angles.
Phil Jones was morphing into a giraffe’s calf on a bed of marbles at this juncture, while Sterling, in possession, imitated a frozen rabbit who’d been chucked a piping hot potato instead of the humble carrot.
Belgium’s issue was that Romelu had lost the power of all limbs – not ideal when you’d been spoon-fed enough chances to bring four Golden Boots back to fling at Jose’s boulder.
At half-time, Keano nuked Rose and Jones, while everyone else slunked and slid down their swivel chairs and feared total carnage after the break.
England rallied, though, and Eric Dier might have scored. But he didn’t. Belgium then nearly scored the best goal since the world was invented. But they didn’t.
All that was left was for that man Hazard to apply the mortal blow in the dying embers with that man Jones looking like he always looks when he’s bricking it in one-on-ones with that man Hazard.
Hoddle now reckoned Belgium were maybe six, seven years ahead of England – as opposed to just the five years ahead they were in the first half. Poor old Sam could only concur. Phil Jones, it now seemed, could put years on an entire country.
A chesty Keano had little else of note to say once all the ash had settled. Parades cancelled, Cork’s work in Russia was almost done.
But first it was off to that big hearse of Roy’s out the back of Red Square to release all those balloons towards the sun-kissed heavens. Before, er, commmming home with that 14-inch solid gold urn and Ian Wright Wright Wright’s frazzled cheerleader’s soul.