Belgium were knocked out of the 2022 World Cup on Thursday after a goalless draw with Croatia left them in third place in Group F.
On what was a frustrating evening for the Red Devils, both Romelu Lukaku and Yannick Carrasco rejected good chances to score the goal that would have sent Belgium through.
As it was, the No. 2 ranked team in the world failed to make a breakthrough at Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, meaning they would not be offered in the knockout stage of the tournament.
Morocco – who won their match against Canada on Thursday 2-1 – and Croatia qualified from the group to finish first and second respectively.
For Belgium, this is yet another disappointing end to an international tournament, and the Royal Belgian Football Association announced shortly afterwards that manager Roberto Martínez had resigned as national team coach.
In his post-match interview, Martínez said Belgium could go home with “heads held high”.
“It’s not easy to win matches in the World Cup. We weren’t ourselves in the first match, we were deservedly beaten in the second,” Martinez told the BBC.
“Today, we were ready, we created opportunities, and today, there are no regrets. We are out, but we can leave with our heads held high.”
It was meant to be the last dance of Belgium’s so-called “golden generation”.
With many of the squad’s players approaching or in their mid-30s – including Dries Mertens, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld – many saw the World Cup in Qatar as a last chance to roll over the hump and win international football.
But although the team was packed with high-class players, the age profile of the team led some to believe that Belgium’s window was over.
In fact, star Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said in an interview with the Guardian that his team “has no chance” of winning the title because the players are “too old”.
Needing a win in their final Group F match against Croatia to progress, Belgium’s weaknesses were evident in a slow-paced first half.
The team had plenty of possession without breaking Croatia’s organisation, while also looking vulnerable at the break.
The biggest talking point came in the first half when Croatia thought they had been awarded a penalty – even 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric put the ball on the spot – only for referee Anthony Taylor to eventually rule the penalty out for offside after a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) review. .
After the break and following Lukaku’s introduction, Belgium increased their tempo as they pressed for a vital goal – the Inter Milan forward going straight into the arms of Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Levakovic.
But seconds later, it was Croatia who had a good chance. Thibaut Courtois missed Mateo Kovacic’s curling effort.
Although Belgium is the team that needs the three points, it is Croatia who have stepped up the pressure. Courtois, who played in his 100th cap for Belgium, had to be at his best to deny both Modric and Marcelo Brozovic.
Belgium almost made a very important breakthrough on the hour mark when Carrasco was heroically saved by a defender before Lukaku hit the post when he should have scored.
A few minutes later, Lukaku missed another great opportunity when he headed in from close range – the ball appeared to be gone moments before De Bruyne flicked it on, so the effort was likely ruled out.
As time went on, Belgium had two massive chances to salvage the victory.
In extra time Lukaku – with the goal at his mercy – was unable to settle his feet and his poor effort was eventually collected by the goalkeeper close to the line.
And in the final few seconds, when it looked like Belgium would have one last chance, a great tackle from 20-year-old Josko Gvardiol saved the game for the Croats.
The result was noisy, but Belgium could not find the vital target. Afterwards, Martinez was asked if this marked the end of the country’s “golden generation” and the Spaniard was philosophical.
“You see Juri Tielemans and other young players – the ‘Golden Generation’ doing something that brings in the next generation,” he said. “It’s not about the names on the field, the legacy can be left in many ways.”
When asked if the result was disappointing, Martinez added: “We wanted to succeed but I’m sure the other national teams wanted to qualify and this is the tournament.
“In the previous World Cup, we won three matches in the group stage, and we wanted to go further.”
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