RIYAN, Qatar (AFP) – Belgium secured a win and a place in the last 16 of the World Cup on Thursday. All I needed was for Romelu Lukaku to score when he received the ball in front of the Croatian goal in the dying seconds.
But it failed.
Belgium and its “golden generation” bid farewell to the World Cup after a 0-0 draw with Croatia, which rose to second place in Group F behind Morocco.
Minutes later, coach Roberto Martínez announced that he would no longer captain Belgium, ending a cycle that had lasted more than six years – a decision he made before the start of the World Cup.
His farewell could have been delayed by a few more days.
Croatia, finalists in 2018 and semi-finalists in 1998, are aiming for another prolific World Cup run. Japan will be his opponents in the round of sixteen next Tuesday.
Instead, Belgium faces the disintegration of its talented squad, which has failed to cement its place as the second-best team in the world according to FIFA, and one of the favorites to win the title.
Lukaku came on after recovering from injury in the second half and ended up knocking the full-back off the bench when he left the field after missing several chances. The clearest was from close range, from a pass from Thorgan Hazard. The ball hit Lukaku’s waist and instead of rolling to the bottom it drifted to Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Levakovic to recover it.
The striker also hit the post with the goal at his disposal, and in another match he hit it with a header over the crossbar after a cross from Kevin De Bruyne.
After the match, Lukaku released his anger into the booth. He was also seen crying when he received condolences from Thierry Henry, the Belgian team’s technical assistant.
“We could have won with three goals and had a completely different feeling,” Martinez said.
“I think he (Lukaku) moved very well, put himself in good positions and the only thing he lacks is a finish. That’s what made the difference between hitting the poster and putting him in it.”
Belgium’s so-called ‘golden generation’ – with six players who have more than 100 caps for the national team – could leave with a third-place finish in 2018 as their pinnacle moment.
The team, which was faced with rumors of internal squabbles during the tournament, scored just one goal in three matches – opening with a 1-0 victory over Canada and then losing 2-0 to Morocco. He saved his best performance in his final match. But it’s too late.
With the indomitable Luka Modric in midfield, the Croats will try to go far. They have reached at least the semifinals on each of the two occasions on which they have advanced to the knockout stage.
“This is a team that combines experience and youth,” said Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic.
He also referred to the results of the Belgians. “Luck was on our side because they didn’t take advantage of their chances.”
De Bruyne and Lukaku will surely return at Euro 2024 and then suddenly at the 2026 World Cup. But Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Axel Witsel and Dries Mertens could have played their last major tournament.
And the same awaits Eden Hazard, who was relegated to the bench against Croatia and who – at the age of 31 – is the shadow of the iconic player he became before suffering an injury blight since 2019.
Martinez, who is likely to resume his coaching career at the club level, lamented his loss against Morocco more than his draw with Croatia.
“Today we are back to where we are,” he said.
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