Sky Sports' writers reflect on Sunday's talking points as Belgium appear to have been derailed by Kevin De Bruyne’s claim they are 'too old' to win the World Cup, while inexperienced striker Niclas Fullkrug spearheads Germany's rescue mission
Monday 28 November 2022 09:07, UK
When even Kevin De Bruyne has an off-day you know something is wrong. In the context of Belgium's World Cup, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise.
The noises coming out of the camp, from the Man City maestro in particular, have been eyebrow-raising for all the wrong reasons. His open frustration with Jan Vertonghen's long passing against Canada. Then an admission that he and his team-mates were "too old" to win the tournament.
Against a backdrop of increasing disharmony, Belgium now need to beat Croatia in their final group game to be sure of qualifying for the last 16, four years after the Golden Generation marched past Brazil and to third place for their best-ever World Cup in Russia.
That they should do so having lost to a Morocco side celebrating only a third win in their World Cup history, half as many as Belgium managed in 2018 alone, is even worse.
Belgium's body language looked concerning from the first minute against the African underdogs. They controlled possession, but never looked to know what to do with it. It would have all felt very familiar for anyone who lived through England's years of underperforming.
Morocco had moments of quality, flashes of brilliance through Sofiane Boufal in particular but there was only one reason they won the game - they wanted it more.
Belgium's players were sniping at each other long before Morocco's opener, eventually credited to Romaine Saiss, and the unhappy camp which they present is just as big of an issue for Martinez as their most embarrassing World Cup defeat in nearly 30 years.
Vertonghen offered a small insight into the situation inside the Red Devils squad, telling reporters: "A lot is going through my head now, things that I shouldn't say outside the dressing room."
That didn't stop him also sarcastically biting back at De Bruyne, and questioning whether Belgium's poor attacking play was because his team-mates were "too old". When things start spilling out in public, you know there's trouble brewing.
At some point, that Belgium dressing room has to end the infighting and focus on creating a united front ahead of Croatia on Thursday. But on current evidence, you wouldn't bet on it.
He ran immediately into the outstretched arms of manager Hansi Flick. It transpired, in the 83rd minute against Spain, that Germany do indeed have a natural No 9 and he goes by the name of Niclas Fullkrug. The sense of occasion was enormous. It was the goal that kept the four-times world champions' tournament dreams alive.
The 29-year-old travelled to Doha as the Bundesliga's top-scoring German, with 10 goals in 14 games for promoted Werder Bremen, yet he's only four weeks and three caps into his senior international career. It's taken some time but the striker, who has drawn comparisons with the infamous Mario Gomez, has finally announced himself - scoring Germany's first World Cup goal as a substitute since Mario Gotze at the 2014 final.
Kai Havertz played up top against Japan. Thomas Muller was entrusted with the role against the Spaniards. But neither have made the impact Fullkrug has in Qatar. Unai Simon sunk to his knees as the forward, Germany's oldest outfield debutant, fired high into the Spanish net, almost in admiration of a strike that was simply unstoppable.
Special mention must be reserved for 19-year-old Jamal Musiala, for his role in the goal, and his general command of the pitch, but the remainder of the plaudits can be attributed to Fullkrug. He came to Germany's rescue in their time of need.
The Mannschaft have failed to win their first two group stage matches at a World Cup finals for the first time in their history, but thanks to Fullkrug, they live to fight another day.
It's two in two for Alvaro Morata at his first World Cup but his strike against Germany was a better indicator of his usefulness to Luis Enrique at this tournament, compared to his goal which added gloss to the thumping win over Costa Rica.
In a fascinating tactical battle, Germany were doing well to shut off the passing avenues into playmakers Pedri and - in particular - Gavi and Spain had run up against an opposition side able to stymie their attacking play. Dani Olmo had forced Manuel Neuer into an early parry onto the bar but Hansi Flick's side were carving out the better openings despite having less possession.
Marco Asensio was largely ineffective through the middle and Spain needed a focal point; the only recognised striker in their squad. Step forward Morata.
He is a player who can delight and frustrate in equal measure - his performance against Italy in the semi-finals of the Euros summed that up when he scored the extra-time equaliser but never looked confident with his spot-kick in the shootout.
But speaking after the draw with Germany, it's clear he feels comfortable with his role in Luis Enrique's plans. He knows what's needed of him.
Stepping off the bench for the second game in a row, he produced a goal which was a wonderful example of his finishing ability, a clever flick past Neuer on the move. A striker's run. Only a brilliant tackle from Nico Schlotterbeck prevented him capitalising on more good movement, before a loose touch let him down when he looked to be away from Niklas Sule.
This is a Spain side capable of playing wonderful football but like any side with ambitions of winning major trophies, they need options and Morata allows this talented group to tweak their approach and find a way through the opposition's plans.
"You have to be at your strongest when you are feeling at your weakest."
It's a quote better suited to - and no doubt aimed at - the trials and tribulations of the real world, but it seems Costa Rica took that on board after they were thrashed by Spain on Thursday.
As such, Los Ticos set up with defence at the forefront of their minds on Sunday. With the pace Japan attacked at times, it was almost as though they were resigned to their fate and saving face for the remainder of their stay in the tournament would be more important.
But even after their win over Germany, the Japanese could never generate the fluency needed and, as the second half wore on, it looked as though a mistake would settle the game - in either team's favour. That was exactly what happened. Hidemasa Morita made a hash of his clearance, Costa Rica pounced and the points were theirs.
A draw would have all-but sealed their fate, but Keysher Fuller's moment of magic not only kept them very much in the tournament, but provided added inspiration that they could even qualify for the last 16. Who would have guessed that would be the case earlier this week?
Costa Rica may not have been at their best and it may not have been the most convincing win - by any stretch of the imagination - but the way they dug deep to triumph in the face of adversity should offer inspiration for others."
Having spent so long in the shadows of his esteemed colleagues Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Sunday may have been the day that - on the award of his 86th cap - Mateo Kovacic finally emerged as the key cog in Croatia's engine room.
That is not to say that Modric wasn't also excellent in their 4-1 win over Canada, but it was Kovacic, an unused substitute in their World Cup final defeat four years ago, who proved the most influential figure in their turnaround victory.
His reclaiming of possession and driving runs forward helped Croatia retake control of the game after Canada's quick start, turning it on its head and getting their World Cup campaign truly underway.
At 37 it is likely Modric's last tournament, while Rakitic retired from the international game in 2020. At 28, Kovacic will be at the heart of Croatia's plans for plenty of years to come.
Canada's first World Cup for 36 years ended prematurely on Sunday, but the performances of John Herdman's team in Qatar will provide hope they will not have to wait over a quarter of a century for the next.
They were very narrowly beaten by Belgium in their Group F opener earlier in the week and that prompted a confident start against Croatia, which resulted in them taking a shock lead with just two minutes on the clock.
It was their first-ever goal at a World Cup finals and there was little surprise that starboy Alphonso Davies was the player that scored it.
Croatia - finalists in 2018, of course - looked nervy early on, but grew as the minutes ticked by and, in the end, proved to be too strong, too experienced and too big a barrier for the side ranked 41st in the world before a ball was kicked.
Herdman had been bullish before the encounter, suggesting his side would "F' Croatia", which seemingly provided fuel for the Europeans. Two-goal Andrej Kramaric batted back after the final whistle: "In the end, Croatia demonstrated who F'd whom."
There is perhaps a lesson to be taken about choosing battles wisely, which Herdman and Canada will no doubt learn from as they look to remain players on the world stage.