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World Cup hits and misses: Romelu Lukaku shadow of former self as Belgium's tournament exit spelt end for head coach Roberto Martinez

Plus: Germany's inefficiency sees them crash out of the World Cup again; Hakim Ziyech's wonderful World Cup continues for Morocco; How Chelsea target Josko Gvardiol was vital to Croatia's last-16 progression; Why the misuse of Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies was Canada's downfall

Lukaku squanders chances as Belgium go out

Belgium's Romelu Lukaku misses a scoring chance
Image: Belgium's Romelu Lukaku misses a scoring chance

When it comes to hits and misses, there cannot be many more literal examples of the latter than Romelu Lukaku's performance against Croatia. 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 World Cup hopes on the line.

Lukaku reacts to Belgium's early exit in Qatar
Image: Belgium have failed to progress to the knockout stages of a World Cup tournament for the first time since 1998

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.
Adam Bate

Gvardiol guards Croatia with his life

Croatia's Josko Gvardiol holds off Romelu Lukaku
Image: Croatia's Josko Gvardiol holds off Romelu Lukaku

There is an individual award for the Golden Boot winner, the Golden Glove and for the Player of the Tournament. But what about 'Tackle of the Tournament'? Josko Gvardiol kept Croatia at the World Cup with the flick of his boot. It denied Romelu Lukaku a certain goal. It capped a magnificent performance from the masked defender.

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At just 20 years old, he already looks the complete package and it was clear to see why Gvardiol has been heavily linked with a move to Chelsea among other clubs leading up to the World Cup.

Croatia midfielder Mateo Kovacic said afterwards: "He's phenomenal, he's 20 and he's already fantastic. He can play at the highest level and he will only continue to get better. But I have no comments to make about links with Chelsea."

Well, you can slap an extra £10m on the player's valuation now. RB Leipzig will have seen Gvardiol's development first hand but the Bundesliga outfit will struggle to retain his services for much longer if he keeps Croatia as compact and resolute as he did on Thursday evening.

Croatia eased into the last 16 of the World Cup
Image: Croatia eased into the last 16 of the World Cup

A Rolls-Royce of a defender already, Gvardiol made nine clearances, eight ball recoveries and produced six key passes into the final third in addition to two tackles.

Croatia were unconvincing and must improve in the round of 16. Despite having a penalty ruled out by VAR due to an offside in the build-up - their threat was limited. But as Belgium's ageing defence creaked, and Wout Faes remained unused throughout this tournament, Gvardiol showed why it pays to put faith in youth.
Ben Grounds

Simon looks a weak link for Spain

Unai Simon looks dejected after Japan's winning goal
Image: Unai Simon looks dejected after Japan's winning goal

As Spain pick up the pieces from their extraordinary 2-1 loss to Japan and begin to look at what actually went wrong, leaving aside the VAR drama surrounding the decisive goal, they will surely conclude that Unai Simon was at least partly to blame.

The 25-year-old, Spain's first-choice goalkeeper ahead of David Raya and Robert Sanchez, with David de Gea absent from the squad, had almost cost them in the first half when he erred in possession under pressure from Japan striker Daizen Maeda and a similar scene unfolded soon after the break.

This time, though, Spain did not recover. His panicked pass did find its way to left-back Alejandro Balde, but it was at awkward height for him, allowing Japan to steal possession through Junya Ito and work the ball forward to substitute Ritsu Doan.

Doan's subsequent shot was firmly struck, but Simon should have done better in that respect too, the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper getting both hands to the ball but still failing to prevent it from going in.

Simon could do little about the winner, although his positioning was perhaps less than perfect, but the warning signs about what happened for the equaliser were there long before Thursday night's second half, in the previous game against Germany.

In that encounter, Simon was fortunate on two separate occasions that he was not punished for errant passes on the edge of his own box. This time, he was not so lucky. Spain's defeat was not solely down to him, of course, but he looks a liability nonetheless.
Nick Wright

Germany's inefficiency sees them crash out again

Germany have been knocked out in the group stage for the second consecutive World Cup
Image: Germany have been knocked out in the group stage for the second consecutive World Cup

It's quite inconceivable that Germany would exit at the group stage in two successive World Cups. They have always been hailed for their efficiency which has led to continued success, but it has been a distinct inefficiency that sees them crash out again.

Even manager Hansi Flick said: "We did not have any efficiency at this tournament and that is why we were eliminated."

It has been a litany of failures at World Cups since their 2014 win in Brazil. Just one win and two defeats in Russia saw them finish bottom of their group. Now, four years on and a new manager later, they finish third on goal difference and on an early flight back to Berlin.

Given their chances created - especially against Japan and Costa Rica - they should have cruised into the last 16. They had 32 shots on Thursday evening, and 26 in their 2-1 defeat to Japan.

Add the 11 they managed against Spain, they racked up 69 shots in their group stage games. It's again astonishing that they only scored six goals with goal difference eventually proving crucial.

But errors in midfield and defence were also equally as crucial. There were uncharacteristic sloppy passes and Manuel Neuer was needed to bail his defenders out of trouble on more than one occasion - his save from Keysher Fuller late in the first half after Antonio Rudiger's mistake a prime example.

While a shock 2-1 defeat to Japan will stand out as their downfall moment from 2022, it is ultimately a collective failing and exposure of errors across the team that sees Germany heading home once again. Hansi Flick has a real task on his hands to restore Die Mannschaft to their former glory.
Charlotte Marsh

Ziyech is Morocco's gem

Morocco's Hakim Ziyech (7) celebrates surrounded by team mates after scoring his side's opening goal during the World Cup group F soccer match between Canada and Morocco at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha , Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Image: Hakim Ziyech's opener after three minutes and 30 seconds was the second earliest goal scored for an African nation at the World Cup

Journey back a few months and Hakim Ziyech was not a name you would find among the Moroccan national team setup. The Chelsea forward had effectively retired himself from international duty, following discord with former coach Vahid Halilhodzic. But, having reinstated himself after a brief leave of absence, he's back doing what he's good at. There were even remnants of the pace and industry that tempted Chelsea into the transfer market back in 2020 - the Ajax Ziyech, if you will.

You could find the winger scampering downfield at the Al Thumama Stadium on Thursday, making a nuisance of himself by operating as the pinch point for Morocco, attracting fearful defenders to his mere presence. He caused untold problems for Canada's disorganised backline, all while bringing others into play with clever movement, incisive passing and cheeky invention.

Morocco like to play on the front foot. It's their style. It's what their red-clad army of fans have demanded at this tournament. And Ziyech has been more than obliging, mercilessly capitalising on Milan Borjan's blunder to give his side the upper hand with only four minutes on the clock against Canada.

In a twist of good fortune, a harried Borjan played the ball directly to the 29-year-old, who thanked the goalkeeper for the early Christmas gift by chipping the ball over his head into an empty net. Ziyech, incidentally, is just the third Moroccan to score and assist a goal in the same edition of a World Cup. It's a far cry from his club form this season - Chelsea fans must be wondering where this version of Ziyech has been hiding.
Laura Hunter

Tinkering cost Canada; Davies not utilised

Canada's head coach John Herdman gestures during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Canada, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)
Image: Canada head coach John Herdman: "It's going to sting but there isn't a game we're not proud of"

One of Canada's defining characteristics during John Herdman's time in charge has been their ability to adapt to the manager's various tweaks of formation.

When it works, switching systems from game to game can help a side to punch above their weight by nullifying opponents' strengths and exposing their weaknesses. Herdman guided Canada to their first World Cup in 36 years, so it's hard to argue with the Englishman's approach.

However, when the tinkering backfires, it can make a team look muddled - a description that could be levelled at Canada in Qatar.

Their three matches saw them line up in three different formations, while Alphonso Davies - undoubtedly the star of Canadian football - was handed three different starting positions and was regularly shifted around the field as Herdman made further in-game tweaks.

Davies regularly lines up at left-back for his club, Bayern Munich, but the touch map below shows how varied his usage was with Canada at the World Cup.

Alphonso Davies touch map

While it's not uncommon for international sides to use players differently from how they are deployed at club level - Real Madrid defender David Alaba often plays in midfield or on the wing for Austria, for example - Canada didn't seem to know how to get the best from Davies.

The 22-year-old played at wing-back, on both flanks in a 4-4-2 and as part of a front two, but Canada's inability to make him the focal point of their game is shown by the fact he managed just one shot during the tournament.

It's hard to be too harsh on Canada, given they outplayed Belgium in their opening game and took the lead in their second against Croatia.

But the way in which they slumped to defeat against Croatia and then failed to respond to Herdman's changes against Morocco begged the question of how they would have performed with a more settled approach.
Joe Shread

Brilliant Japan press Spain into submission

Japan's Ritsu Doan, left, celebrates with teammate Kaoru Mitoma scoring his side's first goal against Spain during a World Cup group E soccer match at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Image: Japan's Ritsu Doan, left, celebrates with teammate Kaoru Mitoma scoring his side's first goal against Spain

The difference between Japan in the first half and Japan in the second half was so stark in contrast you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching two completely different sides.

Tactical wizardry from Hajime Moriyasu? Or simply a case of sending out the wrong team again? Who knows, really. But Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma - both introduced at half-time - turned the game on its head against Spain. The former scored the equaliser, then the two combined for Ao Tanaka's controversial winner.

The energy, the pressing. Spain looked lost after the break, with no space, no time and no idea of how to get back into the game. If they play anything like that again then Croatia won't know what hit them in the last 16. Who knows how far Japan can go.
Simeon Gholam

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