Match report as Belgium sub Romelu Lukaku misfires in 0-0 draw with Croatia; 2018 runners-up into knockouts with Group F winners Morocco but Roberto Martinez's side - ranked No 2 in the world - sent home with a third-place finish; Belgium boss later announced he is leaving his role
Friday 2 December 2022 06:17, UK
Romelu Lukaku hit a post and missed a string of chances as Belgium's 'golden generation' were knocked out of the World Cup, 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, in stoppage time, was beaten to a loose ball by Josko Gvardiol from a similar distance.
After the final whistle, 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 offside review 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. For Martinez it was the end of the line, too, with the Belgium boss announcing he would not be continuing in the role.
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, and next face a last-16 tie against the winners of Group E, where Spain lead the way.
Belgium's starting line-up was the oldest seen so far at the World Cup - 31 years and 95 days on average - and they were slow out of the blocks, with Ivan Perisic racing down the left and shooting wide with just 10 seconds on the clock.
News of Hakim Ziyech's opener for Morocco against Canada ramped up the requirement for Belgium to win but, aside from a shot from Yannick Carrasco and a miscue from Dries Mertens, there was no wave of pressure created by the Red Devils in the first half.
Instead they were fortunate to survive a penalty award, with VAR eventually advising ref Anthony Taylor to check an extremely tight offside call at the pitchside monitor after Carrasco had caught Andrej Kramaric. The shirt sleeve of Dejan Lovren was judged to be millimetres ahead of Jan Vertonghen's.
In need of a game-changer, Martinez sent on Lukaku, who had scored 28 goals in his previous 28 appearances for his country. Not fit enough to start because of a hamstring problem which had sidelined him since October prior to this World Cup, Lukaku was Martinez's big hope.
But rather than becoming the match winner, the striker would endure a performance which will be long remembered for the wrong reasons.
He showed his threat almost instantly, recording the first shot on target of the match with a header, and teed up De Bruyne to shoot wide. But after a good phase for Croatia, which saw Courtois, on his 100th appearance, tip over a rasping drive from Mateo Kovacic and get down low to keep out efforts from Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric, the chances came and then went for Lukaku.
On the hour mark he hit a post with the goal at his mercy after Carrasco's shot was parried. Three minutes later he headed over from a De Bruyne cross, when the ball may have already rolled out of play. Two bad misses - but it got a lot worse from the 87th minute onwards.
First he deflected Thomas Meunier's cross-shot wide, and moments later chested the ball to goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic with an open goal ahead of him. And, just to rub salt into the wounds, he was beaten to the ball by Gvardiol when he looked set to prod home two minutes into stoppage time.
End of an era? It felt like it at full-time. Lukaku wasn't the only Belgian player with tears in his eyes.
Croatia will hope the story of their own experienced squad has a few more chapters to go...
Sky Sports' Adam Bate:
Was Romelu Lukaku's finishing demonstration for Belgium against Croatia one of the worst ever witnessed in World Cup history? Quite possibly. Coming on at half-time with Belgium in need of just one goal to progress, Lukaku missed four clear chances to score.
The second, a header, would not have counted. The cross had gone out of play. The third, a ricochet behind from close range, he could not have anticipated. But the first miss was big and those subsequent chances cannot have helped his confidence for the last one.
A post struck. An attempt to chest the ball down when he was so close with the goalkeeper beaten that it would have been easier to chest it into the net. These were bad misses for anyone at any time - let alone a celebrated striker with his country's World Cup hopes on the line.
It was cruel on Lukaku. He was devastated afterwards even as Thierry Henry tried to console him. In some respects, he should not have been put in this position, tasked with saving his country having played only half an hour of club football since August.
Belgium were so miserable at this tournament, so disjointed throughout, that it is impossible to imagine that these misses cost them any plausible shot at World Cup glory. Even so, that is unlikely to be much consolation for Lukaku after this game to forget.
Sky Sports' Ben Grounds:
"It is Croatia who continue their World Cup journey and you have to say Belgium have got what they deserved. They were unconvincing against Canada and thoroughly beaten by Morocco.
"They've not been good enough. The experience of this Croatian side and the quality throughout the team has got them over the line.
"De Bruyne, with his hands on his hips at full-time, was distraught. The team ranked second in the world and who came third at the last World Cup, are out."
Belgium boss Roberto Martinez to BBC: "The performance today was ourselves. It's not easy to win games at the World Cup. We won our first game and in the second we had a deserved defeat. Today we were ready and created many opportunities. Today there are no regrets. We can leave with our heads held high."
Martinez in his press conference later: "That was my last game for the national team. I always work in the long term. I believe in the long term. Since 2018, I had many opportunities to leave and take jobs at the club level. But I wanted to stay loyal. I am not resigning. I've reached the end of my contract.
"I'm a person who likes to build things. I arrived with the clear job of qualifying for the World Cup and participating in the World Cup then we finish with the bronze medal and I felt I wanted to give it another go.
"It's been a real joy being able to build an incredible legacy. I know some people only see a legacy by winning a major tournament. I see it in a different way."
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic: "I certainly expected a difficult match against a great team. Belgium cannot play three matches in a row in a very bad manner and this was a decisive match. But Croatia were great, especially in the first hour. We had a clear penalty, but VAR ruled against us.
"It is to be expected that a team such as Belgium would have certain chances and I must be honest and say that we were also lucky, they didn't take their chances in the end.
"It was a great match, but a very difficult match to watch, to lead and it was difficult to play, but this is football."
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.