Romelu Lukaku hit a post and missed a string of chances as Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ were knocked out of the World Cup, with their 0-0 draw with Croatia sending the 2018 runners-up into the last 16 with Group F winners Morocco.
Roberto Martinez’s side finished third four years ago and led the world rankings until recently but his ageing squad were well off the pace in Qatar and, despite an improvement in the second half which led to a series of openings for Lukaku, they couldn’t come up with the win they needed due to Morocco’s victory over Canada.
Half-time sub Lukaku shot against the inside of the post when the goal was gaping, headed over from a Kevin De Bruyne cross, flicked wide from close range, chested the ball to the goalkeeper from inside the six-yard box and was beaten to a loose ball by Josko Gvardiol from a similar distance.
At full-time, Belgium’s record scorer broke down in the arms of coach Thierry Henry and then punched a panel out of the dugout in frustration – but his team-mates had once again been below par themselves, with only an extremely tight – and reviewed – offside call denying Croatia a penalty in the opening 45 and Thibaut Courtois made to work in the second period
Amid speculation about unrest in the Belgian camp following their 2-0 humbling by Morocco in their previous group game, Martinez had dropped captain Eden Hazard but there was no addition to the team’s solitary goal in this group phase.
With 15 of their 26 players at this tournament aged 29 or over, this gifted group of Belgian footballers may well have missed their moment to get their hands on silverware.
Croatia will need to improve considerably themselves if they are to replicate their run to the final in Russia but they are at least still in the mix, with a last-16 tie against the winner of Group E, where Spain lead the way.
Croatia progress to the last 16 of the World Cup along with Group F winners Morocco, who beat already-eliminated Canada 2-1. Belgium are knocked out of the World Cup, finishing third a point behind Croatia.