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  • Writer's pictureJourneyman

Jude's Saviour

England 2-2 Belgium (Friendly)

The first ever international between these two was played in 1921 in Brussels, when Charlie Buchan and Harry Chambers helped England to a 2-0 win. England have won the majority of matches against Belgium, 16 in all, Belgium just five and this is the 26th match between the two, although in recent times the Red Devils have fared much better than the Three Lions having won three of the last four meetings since 2018.

Saturday’s loss to Brazil means this is rather important not to lose, for Gareth Southgate who’s doubters will always echo his poor record against the football elite. Belgium might not be the side they were back in 2018 but they can still shift a bit. England are considered amongst favourites for Euro 2024 but this is last chance to show what their players can do, before the Manager announces his squad for the finals this summer.

Speaking of shifting, it’s 3pm and I’m heading out the door, I’m taking the neighbour tonight who’s last trip to Wembley was during London 2012. She’s a huge football fan and this is a bit of a treat, I’m hoping she’s not left disappointed.

It’s started raining as I head down the A453 onto the M1, plenty of chit chat in the car we discuss England’s hopes this summer and the gameplan of Gareth Southgate tonight. I’m a huge fan of the England Manager but he does have his flaws, I’m not expecting an entertaining evening because his sides don’t often entertain, which leaves me thinking ‘why’ am I leaving work early on a Tuesday afternoon to trapes 200 miles in rush hour traffic and watch it at all?

It’s like a drug though, watching England isn’t for the feint-hearted and it’s certainly not always about the event, but seeing players today, that could be superstars tomorrow, playing with superstars today, that will be all time greats tomorrow, there’s something about the highest level of football which I really love, and it doesn’t get any higher than representing your country.

The Venue

The rain hasn’t stopped since getting on the M1, two hours and more I’m on the North Circular by 5:30 and heading around the back of Ikea on to Great Central Way where there’s a few ‘park for cash’ outlets in the surrounding industrial estate. I’m handing over thirty English pounds to an Albanian on the full understanding the next car park up is only twenty, but I like it here, my exit strategy means I’m best placed for less traffic and I can quickly march, through the rain, down Engineers Way past the high rise apartments that surround the stadium and its arch.

Glowing in white and red the neighbour stops off for a picture at the foot of the Wembley steps on Olympic Way, as we quickly head under them towards the Club Wembley Entrance where it's dry.

Up the escalators we notice the 2024 Nike shirts on the walls, the away one takes my fancy, past the Bobby Moore Suite and onto level two where there’s plenty of choice of eatery, we grab a programme before taking a look at the surroundings, the spectacular pitch green and well lit underneath the huge bowl of red seating. More pics for the neighbour who takes a heavy breath of sigh, I tell her ‘still now I get goosebumps everytime I walk out into this amazing arena’. She said "I didn't expect it to feel that emotional".

Back inside we grab a quick beer to settle the nerves, a Camden Pale Ale with a lager top as i'm driving, in the Lioness Pub we’ve ordered Pizza and Nachos for another thirty English pounds, it’s been a struggle getting a seat so we’ve still a slice left and half a pint to sup as we reach 7:30 and fifteen minutes before kick off, the whole feeling of the place has you totally forgetting you’re at a football match, I’ve not even yet checked the teams.

The Game

A light show flashes during some loud dance music as we take our pew, a cushty number on the aisle behind the East goal, the teams announced onto the field, the venue 85% full, England and Belgium walk out in the torrential rain that hasn’t stopped since we left for Nottingham.

The anthems are respected, and sung, the Red Devils fans to our red most colourful and loud, the action underway as England in ‘raisin’ take on Belgium in Man City blue. The action is positive from the off, Gareth Southgate’s side noticeably attacking tonight, which in effect exposes a rather ropey back four, John Stones has already hobbled off, before Jordan Pickford kicks straight to Tielemans, who delivers side footed a shot low from range into the corner of the net, one mistake, one goal for Belgium.

It’s an annoying error as England have been on top, but they break through when the lively looking Ivan Toney is tripped inside the area by Vertonghen, he steps up and takes the penalty, coolly slotted home for his first international goal.

Jarrod Bowen thinks he’s done the same, he heads home from close range following a deep corner routine that is knocked back to him but VAR intervenes and cancels goal. We can’t see why from here but the Referee, arm up, gives us the verdict that somebody was offside.

The Score

We’ve already had more shots than Saturday night and I like the way England have came out and attacked, they press high and nick the ball in good positions in the final third, but defensively they don’t convince, Lewis Dunk who made an error for Endrick’s winner in the Brazil match, makes an error again, he slips whilst sliding in on Lukaku, who retrieves the loose ball and curls outside of the foot to Tielemans who diving in heads home what is a truly classical and memorable Wembley goal for Belgium.

England haven’t deserved to be losing at half time but two mistakes have proven costly, Bowen has at least three opportunities, Bellingham two, and in the second half that same duo prove England’s biggest threat, but it doesn’t look to be our night.

Before long, the paper aeroplanes are back, Belgium fans are attempting to start a Mexican Wave as a number of subs are made, by now most of the fans have left as the half drags to a close, I’m predicting the headlines again of ‘Southgate Out’ and the TalkSport phone in on the way home, that will no doubt provoke the hoards of drunks to call for his head, but on a night which hasn’t been his best, one thing about Jude Bellingham, is his incredible desire to win, to not give up, and he keeps going, and going, and going, after missing earlier chances, he’s dictating things in the rain, finally he has a bit of space inside the box, it’s England’s last opportunity with four minutes of injury time already played, and Bellingham, unleashes low and hard, to save Southgate's bacon, he won’t be getting a heavy slaughtering tonight.

The Stars

Footballers like Jude Bellingham are just different, his persona rubs off all when he sprinkles his magic and in the stand you cheer, clap, gasp, admire, he doesn’t just ‘glide’ nicer than everyone else, he says ‘sod it’, this is ‘about me’ and he leads like true world class footballers do. Declan Rice was captain, and is brilliant, but Jude is the leader, the talisman, the star of the show, he knows it, Belgium know it, everyone in the stadium knows it, and he’s still only 20 years of age.

Bellingham wasn’t great, but he did what great players do, and pulled something out of the bag, eventually, and in having players like that at their disposal, England will always have a chance, to do great things.

On a night where plenty of positive performances outshone those two errors for Belgium’s only real efforts on goal, there’s plenty of food for thought, who Gareth Southgate takes on that plane to Germany. Ivan Toney, and Kobbie Mainoo, have now failing injury, possibly made it? Ezri Konsa and Jarred Bowen did themselves no harm, as did James Maddison with a late assist.

For Belgium, this wasn’t as star studded as sometimes previous, but in Jeremy Doku they had speed, in Leandro Trossard they had elegance, in Romelu Lukaku they had power and in Youri Tielemans they had precision, on the night I was impressed by Theate at full back, and the leggy Onana in midfield, they two had an achilles heel of defensive instability, but as an attacking force are a serious outfit in particular on the break.

The Verdict

Gareth Southgate spoke after the match about ‘not liking’ his side being so ‘open’ which may ensure for the opening match against Serbia in the summer, he’ll add a bit more resilience and protection in midfield, so his defence doesn’t get over-exposed again, but I liked this England performance much better than the pragmatic, make yourself hard to beat style they shown in losing to Brazil, that doesn’t really suit the attacking players at England’s disposal… But we by now know what to expect from Southgate, who’s players do still play for him and the badge, and who obviously still enjoy the burden of representing their country, something that others haven’t always previously enjoyed in years gone by.

Quarter Finals at best for me? With Kane and Saka we could achieve what has long felt like an impossible dream but I think the shackles on the attacking flow will be holding us back to full potential. If we come back from Germany having reached a final I'll be very surprised indeed. As for Belgium, in a funny way, no pressure at all, they might over-achieve, they have the capabilities and squad depth to reach the last four, where after, anything can potentially happen.

The Teams

England: Jordan Pickford, Ezri Konsa, John Stones (Joe Gomez 10), Lewis Dunk, Ben Chilwell, Kobbie Mainoo (James Maddison 74), Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen (Anthony Gordon 80), Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Ivan Toney (Ollie Watkins 80).

Belgium: Matz Sels, Timothy Castagne, Zeno Debast (Wout Faes 82), Jan Vertonghen, Arthur Theate (Aster Vranckx 71), Youri Tielemans (Thomas Meuneier 71), Orel Mangala (Lois Openda 82), Amadou Onana, Jeremy Doku, Leandro Trossard (Dodi Lukebakio 60), Romelu Lukaku (Michy Batshuayi 82).

7:45pm Kick Off. Tuesday 26th March 2024, Wembley Stadium, London (att 80,773).

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