A golden generation has lost its gilding. The most talented group of Belgian footballers in living memory have spurned their last chance at glory, instead exiting at the group stages of what is surely their last World Cup together. At the final whistle, their best player Kevin De Bruyne was staring into the middle distance, their one-time world-beating talent Eden Hazard was contemplating his role as an ineffective late substitute and their supreme goalscorer Romelu Lukaku was lamenting a series of barely believable missed chances.
For Roberto Martinez, the manager who has come closest to fulfilling this squad’s almost limitless potential, it is surely his final act in charge. It would be tempting to say that the recriminations will come over the next few days for him and his players if not for the fact that they had started already. Talk of a divided squad past its sell-by date has undercut this last dance since the start of their tournament and will now only grow louder.
Croatia progress from Group F but only as runners-up, which is perhaps evidence of their own powers being on the wane. Zlatko Dalic’s side still had just enough about their careful possession play to earn the goalless draw and the point that they required to be sure of reaching the last 16, though their opponents in Al Wakrah on Monday will not have been overly intimidated by what they saw. With Morocco beating Canada to top the group, if it were not for some extraordinary Lukaku misses, Croatia may easily have exited themselves.
Combined, the populations of Belgium and Croatia come in less than that of Delhi. What two nations of 11.6 and 3.9 million people respectively have achieved in international football over the past decade is nothing short of remarkable but eventually, such spells of unlikely success succumb to gravity. This was a meeting of the second and third-place finishers in Russia four years ago and was always likely to end with one or the other falling back down to Earth.
Belgium were always in the most vulnerable position, needing to win to guarantee safe passage. Following claims and counter-claims regarding unrest within the camp, Martinez and his players decided to hold a full squad, pre-match team huddle as an apparent show of solidarity. And yet there was nothing solid about their first 10 seconds, as Croatia’s clever kick-off routine set Ivan Perisic in down Belgium’s left, an early sighter fizzing just wide of the far post.
Belgium’s place at these finals became even more precarious due to events in Al Thumama, where Hakim Ziyech put Morocco into an early lead, and the scale of their task may only have grown if not for the most minimal of offside calls. Yannick Carrasco believed he had conceded a penalty by bringing down Andrej Kramaric when referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot, only for Taylor to be called over to the pitchside monitor.
It transpired, on review, that Dejan Lovren’s shoulder had strayed ever so slightly beyond the last man. Offside checks are of course automated at this World Cup but the question of whether or not a player is interfering with play is open to interpretation. Taylor deemed that Lovren was an active participant, challenging Jan Vertonghen for the initial free-kick, and the penalty call was rescinded.
It was another moment of controversy on Taylor’s record at this World Cup, having just about kept a lid on the frantic end to Ghana’s victory over South Korea on Monday, but it was the only real incident of the first half. The only real commotion in the crowd came when Morocco doubled their lead at the Al Thumama, and even when Canada pulled one back at the end of the first half, the onus was on both of these sides at the Ahmed bin Ali to react.
At the break, Martinez turned to Lukaku, the striker still not deemed fit enough to start due to a persistent thigh injury, but now fit enough to try and salvage his country’s stay in Qatar. Within minutes of his introduction, he connected to a devilish De Bruyne cross, heading into goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic’s hands. It was a good chance, if not as clear cut as the one that would soon follow.
Just before the hour mark, Lukaku should have scored. Granted, the ball came to him quickly after Josip Juranovic’s block on a Carrasco shot from point-blank range, but with Livakovic stranded, the goal was at his mercy. He contrived to hit the inside of the post, his shot ricocheting across the face of goal too quickly for Carrasco to follow in on the rebound. Belgium were playing better but would come to rue missing such a golden opportunity.
Lukaku misfired again minutes later, heading over a De Bruyne cross that replays showed had been hit after the ball had gone out of play. His blushes were spared that time but not in the final stages, when he stretched to reach a Thomas Meunier cross and sent it wide of the post. That was bad but not nearly as egregious a miss as the one in stoppage time when, by chesting down Thorgan Hazard’s centre rather than finishing first-time, he killed the ball stone dead and allowed Livakovic to gather.
There was still time for another Lukaku miss, although that had more to do with Josko Gvardiol’s supreme last-ditch defending to block a goal-bound strike. Had Lukaku scored any one of the four chances that came his way as a substitute, this golden generation would still have a chance of fulfilling their supposed destiny. Yet after this third of three utterly underwhelming performances to close a torrid World Cup campaign, it would be a chance they simply had not deserved.