July 19, 2024

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England 2-1 Belgium: What does victory say about Three Lions’ progress?

England have been searching for statement victories under manager Gareth Southgate to answer allegations that they are the flat-track bullies of international football.

In recent years they have sustained a habit of making very short work of teams they beat – especially in those gloriously untroubled qualifying campaigns – only to come up short when faced with the elite when the pressure is on.

Remember the feel-good factor of the run to the World Cup semi-final in Russia in 2018, placed in sharp and painful relief by the fact they deservedly lost to the best teams they met, Croatia in the last four in Moscow and Belgium in both the group stage and the third-place play-off?

Remember when they did pull out an outstanding result to beat Spain 3-2 in the last Nations League in Seville two years ago, only for reality to bite back when they lost 3-1 to the Netherlands in the semi-final?

So what are we to make of the 2-1 victory over Belgium, the world’s top-ranked side, in the Nations League at Wembley?

This win was not a statement England can shout loudly from the rooftops but it is certainly one Southgate and his players can talk about with great satisfaction.

England can talk up their ability to beat the best – although both sides were without key individuals – but there must also be no going overboard because they have had these brief moments in the past only to fail to take off.

What may delight Southgate most here is that England achieved this win without playing in sparkling fashion – in fact for most of the first half they were disappointingly negative and outplayed by the quality of Roberto Martinez’s side.

There is an art to winning when nowhere near your best and England have developed a little bit of that under Southgate.

If other countries are hailed for such perseverance, an ability to capitalise on moments of good fortune, then it is churlish not to praise England for displaying the same qualities here.

They deserve that praise – but let’s not kid anyone.