Croatia 0 Belgium 0
Lukaku and Belgium's 'golden generation' suffer agonising exit
Haunted. Utterly, totally haunted. The expression on Romelu Lukaku’s face was almost painful to watch. It looked like intrusion in a public arena as he missed a hat-trick of chances that would have taken Belgium into the last-16 of this World Cup.
Instead they are out. At the final whistle Lukaku, who had come on as a half-time substitute, struggling for form and fitness just like Belgium, almost looked in a trance. His team-mates dropped to the turf but he kept on walking, walking straight to assistant manager, and his mentor, Thierry Henry who wrapped his arms around him protectively.
Then the tears flowed. Lukaku’s powerful frame heaved as he cried and cried before there was also anger – he walked to the Belgium dug-out and punched out a huge piece of Perspex before slumping in a chair. What extraordinary drama.
For Belgium’s golden generation this has been a World Cup of pure base metal. It is the end of an era for them and the end, in all probability after six years in charge, for their coach Roberto Martinez.
As England so painfully know labels such as ‘golden generation’ become a millstone and for Belgium the re-building starts after one of their most feted players, Eden Hazard, sat on the bench until the 87th minute and watched as Lukaku struck the post, then failed to convert Thomas Meunier’s driven shot before he committed the greatest miss of all.
It came in injury-time after a slaloming run by Jeremy Doku and a cross from Thorgan Hazard that flew over Dejan Lovren. All Lukaku had to do was force it over the line from a couple of yards out but he failed to do so with the ball bouncing off his midriff. His haunted look said it all.
And so it is Luka Modric’s Croatia and not Kevin de Bruyne’s Belgium who progress as the 2018 World Cup semi-finalists failed to beat the 2018 finalists.
Martinez’s contract takes him through to the end of Belgium’s involvement in this World Cup and while there had been an expectation that he would sign a new deal that will surely now be taken off the table.
Croatia will feel they deserved it and will feel they should have won, and won the group – instead it is Morocco - but had a penalty decision over-turned for the tightest of offside after English referee Anthony Taylor was urged to consult the pitchside monitor by German Var Marco Fritz.
Martinez has talked about legacy, about going close with this team and about remaining number one in Fifa rankings for three years – unfortunately there is no trophy for that – but it is unlikely to cut it. The subdued atmosphere inside the stadium betrayed the sense that something was coming to end.
Given the stakes it was a strangely pedestrian first-half illuminated by two moments of quality and a penalty that was given and then over-turned. Unsurprisingly Modric and De Bruyne were at the heart of the best moments. Within seconds of the kick-off there as a brilliant pass from Modric with the outside of his right boot to pick out Ivan Perisic who cut inside and whistled a shot narrowly wide.
Then, not to outdone, De Bruyne ran through, away from Modric, to slide a pass to Dries Mertens who should have scored but sidefooted wildly over.
And that was it apart from the penalty incident with Croatia earning the spot-kick when when Yannick Carrasco caught Andrej Kramaric. It was allowed to go all the way to Modric waiting to take his kick before Taylor went over to check the monitor.
It was claimed that Lovren’s shoulder was inches ahead of the last defender, Jan Vertonghen, in the build-up and to Croatia’s fury the decision was rescinded. It looked incredibly tight and appeared to come down to the so-called ‘T-shirt’ line of both players arms.
Lukaku’s header was easily gathered before, at the other end, Thibaut Courtois did well to push over Mateo Kovacic’s shot and, soon after, shovelling out another effort from Marcelo Brozovic before denying Modric.
Belgium looked set to capitalise when De Bruyne picked another wonderful pass to find Carrasco only for Josip Juranovic to superbly block his shot. Still the rebound ran to Lukaku who had to score but struck the post. It summed it up for Belgium.
Martinez drops hint over Belgium future
It looks like he may be on his way despite batting away the question in his pitchside TV interview.
He told reporters: "That was my last game with the national team and it was emotional as you can imagine"
A team effort by Croatia
Lukaku consoled by Henry at the end
The former Chelsea and Manchester United striker also punched the dugout in frustration before walking down the tunnel. He knows that is almost certainly his last chance at a World Cup too.
Martinez on if this is the end of the 'Golden Generation'
You see Youri Tielemans and other young players - the golden generation is doing something that is bringing the next generation on. It's not what names are on the pitch the legacy can be left in many ways.
What an achievement for Morocco
Unbeaten in the group, and they have finished above Belgium and Croatia, who finished third and second at the 2018 World Cup. You can follow live reaction from their win over Canada here.
Player ratings - your chance to give Belgium a pasting
I'm not sure Lukaku will be troubling the engravers.
Agony and ecstasy
Roberto Martinez's thoughts
It's clear the performance today was ourselves. We won the first won without being ourselves, the second one we had a deserved defeat when we didn't feel ready. Today, we did and created many chances and can leave with our head held high.
Drogba with an interesting spin on the Lukaku misses
These are the situations where if they were a positive team, a good dressing room, maybe one of those situations goes in. The energy of the team.
FT: Croatia 0 Belgium 0
Belgium are heading home, and it is what they deserve on the basis of their three performances.
Lukaku is in tears on the sidelines, all of the headlines will be about his second-half misses after coming on as a substitute. Misses are part of being a striker, but that really was painful to watch. Like something out of an anxiety dream for Lukaku.
Croatia will finish second behind Morocco and will more than likely play Spain next.
Lukaku looked like getting on the end of another cross but a last-ditch Croatia block extinguished the danger. It was brilliant defending from Gvardiol again, who must be man of the match. Time ticking down for Belgium. Croatia have everyone behind the ball.
Four minutes of added time
Croatia are hanging on, and Belgium are still throwing punches.
Croatia are retreating and settling into a mode of what we have we hold.
Another Lukaku miss! Doku with a mazy dribble in from the left, the ball was worked out to Thorgan Hazard who floated a ball over the head of goalkeeper Livakovic, but Lukaku could not connect from three yards out. The ball just ran down his chest.
Bad goalkeeping and bad from Lukaku.
Belgium have a free-kick wide left, 35 yards out. De Bruyne is over it in a crossing position, but he tries to work a clever short one and Taylor stops play. De Bruyne's next cross is a conventional one, and it is straight down the throat of Livakovic.
Belgium starting play all of the game in Croatia's half, but there has been no big chance since Lukaku hit the post.
Until now! Meunier fired the ball across the six-yard box through the legs of Gvardiol, and Lukaku's touch diverted it just wide from six yards. He had no reaction time, really was a chance of sticking a leg out, but another chance nonetheless. Not Lukaku's day so far.
The game remains tense and measured, but Belgium will have to start going hell for leather soon.
Douku with a trick to beat Juranovic wide left, but his cross was headed away by Brozovic.
Martinez is making his final change: Eden Hazard is coming on. Does he have one moment of magic in him?
Croatia thought a big chance was on the way there, but Juranovic's pull-back was behind all the runners who had steamed into the six-yard box.
If Belgium do not score, they are out. If they do score, Croatia will be out, if Morocco vs Canada stays the same.
Sosa does well to climb and win a back-post header under pressure. From the corner, Vertonghen and his team-mates feel they should have another one but Taylor points for a goal kick. Livakovic and Croatia move up the pitch.
Modric finds some space before Perisic's dangerous cross is dealt with by Castagne.
De Bruyne spreads play out to Tielemans wide right at the second time of asking, but once again Gvardiol was in the right place to head away in front of Lukaku. The centre-back has been excellent tonight, showing why he is linked with a big-money move to the Premier League.
Perisic driving Croatia forward but not for the first time tonight, they do not get the bounce of the ball in the penalty area. Belgium's substitutes are struggling to get involved since coming on.
Martinez is preparing to shuffle the back again: Doku and Tielemans are being readied. Doku looked a really exciting winger at Euro 2020, playing against Italy in the quarter-finals, so somewhat strange he has not been more involved in this tournament. Dendoncker and Carrasco are the players to depart. Belgium rolling the dice.
Another well-worked Croatia move, but the ball sat up a little too high for Modric as he tried to connect with a volley. The effort floated into Courtois' bread basket. Livakovic then catches a De Bruyne cross cleanly.
Morocco still lead Canada, Belgium heading out as things stand. Croatia would finish second in the group.
Dendoncker picks up the first yellow card of the game for hacking down Kovacic on halfway. Croatia have made a couple of subs: Petkovic and Pasalic replacing Kramaric and Livaja.
Neat interplay from Croatia to work the ball into the final third, but Sosa's low cross from the left is gobbled up by Courtois. It does feel as if a goal might be coming.
This is turning into a nightmare for Lukaku...De Bruyne's cross was completely missed by Croatia goalkeeper Livakovic but Belgium's striker headed over an unguarded net.
The goal would have been ruled out for the ball being out of play, but it was still a second honking miss in as many minutes. Might it be a case of third time lucky?
Lukaku misses a golden chance! De Bruyne finds space behind the Croatia midfield and feeds Carrasco, who skips through a couple of challenges before Juranovic stopped a certain goal with a pivotal block.
The rebound broke free for Lukaku who looked set to score with Livakovic on the turf, but his right-footed effort smacked against the post.
Hazard replaces Trossard, which will be a contentious call among Belgium supporters I suspect. Not sure the Brighton forward has had a fair crack of the whip in Qatar. Morocco are still leading, so Belgium have to score the opening goal here.
Croatia starting to look dangerous and move the ball at greater tempo. Sosa believes he should have won a corner but Anthony Taylor points for a goal kick. Thorgan Hazard is about to be Belgium's second substitution.
De Bruyne with a left-footed strike well over the bar, but it was good link-play from Lukaku with his back to goal. Belgium using him as a bounce board to fire passes into.
At the other end, Courtois beats Brozovic's shot away after Croatia piece together a well-constructed attack of their own, with Livaja chesting the ball down.
This has been much better fare. Gvardiol dancing through a few challenges and carries the ball out from the back for Croatia, and Kovacic opens his body up to curl a strike towards goal that Courtois tipped over. Both teams starting to go for it.
Belgium seeing a fair bit of the ball since the restart, and Lukaku gets his first touch of the ball inside the box. Then De Bruyne finds some space in the right channel and whips a cross towards Lukaku, but Gvardiol was there with a crucial clearance.
From the second or third-phase of the corner, a cross is floated up towards Lukaku at the back post but his header is straight at Livakovic. Promising from Lukaku.
Hopefully this game will start to open up in the second half.
Belgium are making a half time change
Dries Mertens off, Romelu Lukaku on. Does he have enough match sharpness to make a telling contribution?
HT: Belgium 0 Croatia 0
Well that half of football was a great advert of watching Tipping Point instead. Another goalless half at the World Cup.
The one thing you can say for Belgium is they have avoided an implosion, but they need to pull their fingers out if they are going to qualify. Croatia need to do likewise, or else they are heading for a runner-up finish and a last-16 meeting against Spain.
The only incident of note was the Croatia penalty overturned for an offside call that stumped Jermaine Jenas.
One final shot in anger of the stroke of half time, as the ball sits up for Juranovic at the edge of the box, but he skews his volley high and wide.
Just the FOUR minutes of added time
Will either side produce something to lift the mood?
De Bruyne whips a delivery across the face from the left, but it is claimed by Livakovic in the Croatia goal. Belgium badly need an injection of quality, or else their players are set for a few weeks of warm weather training with their clubs.
Canada have pulled one back against Morocco, so perhaps Belgium have hope of a favour. Belgium have kept the ball for a sustained period on the Belgium half, with Dendoncker making a promising underlapping ran and his cut-back was deflected away from Trossard when he looked poised to pounce. Better, as Andy Townsend might put it.
Lots of scrapping for 50:50s in the middle of the park, with Witsel conceding a foul. Croatia try to turn the ball forward quickly with a pass around the corner but it is badly overhit. Not much quality on show from either side.
Modric and De Bruyne both guilty of being loose in possession, which sums up where the game is at. The onus is on Belgium to start pushing forward with intent but they appear content just to stay in this.
Nice link up between Kramaric and Modric, one-touch stuff on the right. Croatia sweep it out to Perisic on the opposite flank but Brozovic sees his shot from 25 yards out charged down and blocked. Sosa puts a cross but Livaja's header loops over.
Neither goalkeeper is yet to make a save thus far, not a great deal of entertainment bar the penalty incident. It feels like Belgium are vulnerable when Croatia decide to go through the gears and move the ball swiftly. When Croatia lose the ball, they are retreating and sitting pretty deep.
Belgium's shape is quite narrow, Croatia are finding space down both flanks.
Morocco have now gone 2-0 up against Canada, so Belgium know this is a must win game. Croatia will also need a win to top the group should things stay the same.
Croatia's players were not happy at all, but Lovren did jump with Vertonghen having been in a (slight) offside position when the kick was taken. Croatia, perhaps spurred on by that grievance, are on the front foot and finding gaps once again.
Taylor makes the box sign and the penalty is overturned. The Croatia attacker was judged to be in an offside position before challenging for the initial header with Vertonghen.
Now Var is checking for a possible offside...
And Taylor is going to look at the monitor. This means it must be a question of whether the Croatia attacker is affecting the play. Which makes it a subjective call, rather than one that can be solved by the semi-automated system.
Anthony Taylor points to the spot after Kramaric is kicked in the area. Croatia floated a free-kick into the box, Vertonghen won an important header, but Carrasco's touch was loose and as he tried to retrieve the ball he wrapped Kramaric on the shin. Taylor gave the pen without hesitation.
More encouragement for Belgium, with De Bruyne driving through midfield on the counter-attack and picking out the run of Mertens to his left. Mertens tries to curl the ball into the top corner with his right instep, but it sails well over. Belgium looking more sprightly than in their opening two games.
That was Belgium's most promising attack of the game with Dries Mertens getting in behind down the right, played onside by Celtic full-back Juranovic. His ball fizzed across the box was not far away from Trossard.
Belgium trying to push up and get against the ball with more urgency, but Croatia are still seeing most of the ball. Trossard has been brought into the Belgium team, with the Brighton player unlucky not to start before today. The Brighton man wins a free-kick for backing in just beyond the halfway line.
It looks like Belgium have switched to a back four for this one, which could leave Alderweireld and Vertonghen badly exposed. Roberto Martinez's team are starting to see more of the ball and settle down now.
In the other game in this group, Hakim Ziyech has given Morocco the lead against Canada. That means Belgium need a win as it stands. You can follow that game here on our live blog.
Belgium look all over the place here as Croatia come flooding forward, Kovacic running through the Belgian high line. The ball was worked to Kramaric in the box but he did not find half a yard to get his shot off. Then Livaja's cut back is intercepted by Witsel. All Croatia in the first few minutes.
Croatia get us under way, and within 10 seconds Ivan Perisic has flashed a shot wide of the far post! Modric with a long pass forward. Almost an explosive start.
The players are on their way out...
This has been billed as the battle of the golden oldies. Hopefully we get a contest with some zip and intensity.
Kevin De Bruyne has been pretty outspoken...
"I think our chance was 2018," he told the Guardian. "We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018. I see us more as outsiders."
That did not go down well in the dressing room according to reports, although there have now been clear-the-air talks.
The mood in the Belgium camp looks pretty jovial...
Midfield could be congested today
Croatia always play with three in there, it is the strongest department of the team, with Modric, Kovacic and Brozovic. Belgium play with an interesting 3-box-3, with four players in a square in central areas.
Now you know the teams...
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Will the real Belgians please stand up
The Belgians looked an unhappy side during their loss to Morocco. Slow, un-dynamic and clearly not together as a unit, one has to hope that the airing of some dirty laundry this week has revivified them because this, without question, is a must-win game for them.
Team news - Croatia unchanged
Croatia have kept their same starting XI from the team that thumped Canada 4-1 in their previous fixture, with captain Luka Modric again the key man.
Croatia need only a point to secure their place in the last 16, while that may also be enough for Belgium if Canada pull off a victory over Morocco by three clear goals in the other game in the pool.
Croatia XI: Dominik Livakovic, Ivan Perisic, Dejan Lovren, Mateo Kovacic, Andrej Kramaric, Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, Marko Livaja, Borna Sosa, Josko Gvardiol, Josip Juranovic.
Team news - no Hazard for Belgium
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has dropped captain Eden Hazard and resisted the temptation to start lead striker Romelu Lukaku in their decisive World Cup Group F fixture against Croatia on Thursday.
Defender Leander Dendoncker, wing-back Yannick Carrasco and attacking midfielders Leandro Trossard and Dries Mertens come into the side in a major shake-up from Martinez that sees Kevin De Bruyne wear the skipper's armband.
Belgium XI: Thibaut Courtois, Timothy Castagne, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Meunier, Axel Witsel, Yannick Carrasco, Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne, Leandro Trossard, Leander Dendoncker
Welcome to Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in A Rayyan for what, put simply, is a huge game for both Croatia and Belgium.
The Croats currently sit atop Group F, knowing that a draw will guarantee them passage into the last 16 while a win will get them there as group winners.
In contrast, Belgium are staring down the barrel of what would be a surprise group-stage exit. A lucky win against Canada was followed by a loss to Morocco, leaving Eden Hazard’s side in a must-win situation if they are to be guaranteed qualification.
A draw may get them there but they currently trail Morocco by three on goal difference, meaning Canada would have to beat Morocco heavily for a draw to be enough.
Belgium’s underperformance has led to plenty of off-field drama this week. Kevin de Bruyne and Hazard have been publicly flippant about the quality of the squad and its chances, while news emerged of a dressing-room spat between Jan Vertonghen and Hazard following the Morocco loss.
Senior players and manager Roberto Martinez have played down rumours of a major rift developing in the squad but it’s clear all is not well in the Belgian ranks.
Whether they can put those issues aside for what is a must-win game remains to be seen but what is certain is that in Croatia they face a side who truly found their feet at this tournament when beating Canada on Sunday.
After going one behind, Luka Modric’s side unleashed their attacking prowess, scoring four unanswered goals to take control of Group F.
History is on Belgium’s side, with Croatia having not won this head-to-head since 2010 but, in truth, this current interaction of Belgium’s so-called golden generation appears there for the taking.
Join us for full live team news from 2pm.