DOHA, Qatar -- Belgium were eliminated from the World Cup with Croatia advancing to the round of 16 after the sides played to a 0-0 draw on Thursday.
Belgium had to win to make it to the knockout stages. With the qualification on the line, Roberto Martinez -- who left his role as Belgium coach after the game -- made some big calls in his starting lineup. He dropped captain Eden Hazard and chose not to start striker Romelu Lukaku.
For Croatia, runners-up at the 2018 World Cup, a draw was enough so it was about managing the game in the best way. They thought they had a penalty before VAR intervened for an offside and only conceded one chance to their opponents in the first half.
Martinez sent Lukaku on at half-time with the mission to change the game and qualify his team. He could and should have done it with multiple golden chances missed. This was not Lukaku's World Cup or Belgium's.
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1. What's next for the golden generation?
This was supposed to be their last dance! This World Cup in Doha was the last time they could all get together after ten years as a group in big competitions and try to finally win a trophy. Things turned sour though. This has been a dreadful tournament on and off the pitch. Belgium have showed a terrible image of themselves with poor performances, collectively and individually, tensions, controversy and negative headlines.
The future of Roberto Martinez, who is out of contract, seems far away from Brussels. Jan Vertonghen and Dries Mertens are 35 and this will be the end of them and probably also for 33-year-olds Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel.
Eden Hazard, the captain, has gone through this World Cup like a ghost. Even if he is only 31, he might have a long think about his international future. It is a sad ending of what has been a wonderful story for many years, but it is time to start rebuilding. The process should have started a while ago but Martinez stayed too loyal to his golden generation. And they all paid for it in this tournament.
2. Bold calls don't pay off for Martinez as Lukaku will rue missed chances
Did he think that he had to change something to create an electroshock and wake his players up? Was he too adventurous in his team selection? Nevertheless, Roberto Martinez got it wrong. His decisions didn't pay off and Belgium are out of the World Cup in the group stage which is embarrassing.
What will hurt most is Lukaku coming on at half time and missing four chances to put Belgium ahead. His teammates were in disbelief when Lukaku failed to convert a close range effort which bounced off his chest and into the arms of the Croatia goalkeeper. Another chance rocketed off the post and across the goal to the sideline. It just wasn't his night. No other player has missed more big chances across the entire World Cup so far.
Meanwhile, the decision to start Leandro Trossard as a false 9 didn't have the expected effects. He was mobile but didn't weigh enough on the Croatia defence. Martinez's idea was to play a 3-4-2-1 with the ball with Yannick Carrasco staying wide on the left and Thomas Meunier on the right and then Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens were in charge of the creativity part. Except for a great ball from KDB that was wasted by Mertens, the front three never worked.
Without the ball, the formation became a 4-4-2 which was unbalanced as De Bruyne didn't defend on the right. Once again, like in the previous two games, Martinez changed something at halftime. Lukaku came on and got a chance to score before hitting the post on the hour mark. He clearly changed the game and gave more of a threat to Belgium than ever in this World Cup so far. De Bruyne also grew into the game and created many chances.
However, it was not enough. Martinez was just not inspired on Thursday, like all throughout this tournament, and this humiliating elimination so early is vastly on him.
3. Croatia in control despite final scare
If there is a team in this World Cup who knows how to manage a game, it is Croatia. A draw was enough for them to qualify for the last 16 and even if they created some decent opportunities, they were clearly very happy to control the 0-0 and get the point they needed. They suffered a little bit at the start of the second half when Lukaku came on and hit the post, and especially in the dying minutes when he should have scored.
However, their wonderful midfield three of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic are the masters of controlling games. It was perfect on when to press, how to press, when to slow the pace of the game, when to accelerate it. They wanted time when needed, got a foul at the right time and took a while to take the free kicks. Considering that this team lacks a top striker (Kramaric, Petkovic or Livaja are not in that category), this was probably the best they could do.
Player ratings (1 = worst, 10 = best)
Croatia: Dominik Livakovic 4, Josip Juranovic 5, Dejan Lovren 5, Josko Gvardiol 6, Borna Sosa 6, Luka Modric 7, Marcelo Brozovic 7, Mateo Kovacic 6, Andrej Kramaric 4, Marko Livaja 3, Ivan Perisic 5.
Subs: Bruno Petkovic 4, Mario Pasalic 4, Lovro Majer 4.
Belgium: Thibaut Courtois 7, Thomas Meunier 4, Toby Alderweireld 6, Jan Vertonghen 6, Timothy Castagne 5, Leander Dendoncker 4, Axel Witsel 3, Yannick Carrasco 4, Kevin De Bruyne 6, Dries Mertens 3, Leandro Trossard 3.
Subs: Eden Hazard 4, Jeremy Doku 5, Thorgan Hazard 4, Romelu Lukaku 3, Youri Tielemans 4.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Marcelo Brozovic, Croatia
It could have been Luka Modric, but Brozovic bossed the midfield. He was outstanding with his game management, had 98 touches, a good shot saved by Courtois and made eight passes into the final third. His football IQ is so high that he is an absolute joy to watch in a game like this.
WORST: Leandro Trossard, Belgium
He wanted to start and felt that he deserved to start. He had his chance today and showed absolutely nothing. He didn't create anything, didn't pose a threat, didn't impact the game at all. He was so easy to defend against and was so poor that Martinez took him off just before the hour.
Highlights and notable moments
Thierry Henry consoles a heartbroken Lukaku after the game.
Thierry Henry with Romelu Lukaku after the match 💔😥 pic.twitter.com/NpPWCnIrUQ— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 1, 2022
Belgium had all of this talent over the years and never won a trophy 😢— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 1, 2022
Kevin De Bruyne
Marouane Fellaini pic.twitter.com/iOfurqPEfr
After the match: What the players and managers said
Belgium's Castagne on Roberto Martinez resigning: "We didn't know he was leaving but we had a feeling he would leave. It's a shame to finish like this his tenure. He had brought a lot of Belgian football. The last few years were great for us and it's a shame that it ends with a failure like this. He only spoke to us a little bit after the game but he will probably do more tonight at the hotel or tomorrow."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
- Romelu Lukaku (BEL): Expected goals (xG) of 1.67 against Croatia today; the highest number of any player at the 2022 World Cup
Croatia: As the second-place finisher from Group F, Croatia will play the first-place finisher from Group E.
Belgium: With the loss, the Belgians are out of the World Cup.