Croatia 0-0 Belgium | Group F Match review
Croatia clung on for their World Cup lives to reach the Round of 16 and eliminate a Belgium team that finally came to life in their final 45 minutes in Qatar.
The opening half produced next to nothing in the way of notable action – save for a penalty awarded to Croatia but overturned by the VAR, who detected Dejan Lovren stepping marginally offside prior to Yannick Carrasco’s foul on Andrej Kramaric.
Thibaut Courtois made a trio of good stops after the restart to repel, in order, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric. Roberto Martinez had introduced Romelu Lukaku for the second 45 minutes and, with Belgium upping the tempo in pursuit of the goal they needed to progress, the striker took centre stage for the final half hour.
Lukaku clattered the inside of a post after Kevin De Bruyne’s pass unzipped Croatia for Carrasco to speed into the box. Josip Juranovic made a fabulous intervening tackle but was horrified to see the loose ball running favourably for Lukaku. The Inter Milan forward experienced similar emotions after hitting the woodwork with the goal gaping and frustration gave way to disbelief when Lukuaku headed over from in front of the target following a De Bruyne delivery from the left byline.
Into the frantic closing stages and Lukaku couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough to divert Thomas Meunier’s effort on target. Josko Gvardiol slid in to stop a low delivery reaching Lukaku in the six-yard box. And those two opportunities sandwiched a flighted Thorgan Hazard cross that deceived Dominik Livakovic and travelled over the top of Lovren. Lukaku saw it late and couldn’t control, enabling Livakovic to gratefully clutch on to the ball and Croatia’s World Cup hopes.
It took a confrontation with the reality of a first World Cup group-stage exit in four appearances for Belgium to belatedly served up a glimpse of their trademark slick, express football.
And a quick and ambitious second-half display was so nearly enough for Martinez’s team to wash away the evident frustration over an under-par start to the tournament to reach the last 16. Ultimately, the width of an upright was the difference between going home and going through. In truth, that statement is over simplifying matters. Belgium will rue their sluggish performance against sprightly Morocco and wonder about the time it took to get going in their final group fixture.
But there is no getting away from the fact that Lukaku had Belgium’s destiny at his feet after 60 minutes. Lukaku has endured a World Cup he’ll want to forget in a hurry, pretty much through no fault of his own. He arrived in Qatar plagued by the thigh problem that has blighted his first campaign back at Inter Milan. The 29-year-old missed the opening victory over Canada and was on the field for only the final nine minutes of the Morocco encounter.
Here, coach Martinez summoned Lukaku for the second 45 minutes and when defender Juranovic inadvertently fed Lukaku while making a tremendous intervening challenge on Carrasco, Lukaku was presented with a clear sight of goal. If the shot was on target it would have left Livakovic without a chance. But the goalkeeper could heave an enormous sigh of relief when the ball cannoned off the inside of the post before speeding to safety.
Who knows how the game would have unfolded if the luckless Lukaku, who would endure a torturous time in front of goal, had aimed an inch further left. But he didn’t and in that instant we witnessed a sliding doors moment. Instead of Belgium sticking around and Croatia going home, it is Martinez’s team packing their bags and the 2018 runners-up preparing for the last 16.
Despite playing for only the second 45 minutes, Romelu Lukaku managed five attempts, the joint-highest of any Belgium player at this World Cup.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez: “It’s not easy to win games in the World Cup. We weren’t ourselves in the first game and had a deserved defeat in the second game. Today we were ready, we created opportunities and today there are no regrets. We’re out but we can leave with our heads held high.
“You see Youri Tielemans and other young players – the golden generation is doing something that is bringing the next generation on. It’s not which names are on the pitch, the legacy can be left in many ways.”
Player of the Match