Belgium was knocked out of the 2022 World Cup on Thursday after a goalless draw with Croatia left it third in Group F.
In what was a frustrating evening for the Red Devils, both Romelu Lukaku and Yannick Carrasco spurned good opportunities to score the goal which would have sent Belgium through.
As it was, the No. 2 ranked team in the world failed to make the breakthrough at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, meaning it won’t be featuring in the knockout phase of the tournament.
Morocco – which won its game against Canada on Thursday 2-1 – and Croatia qualified from the group, finishing first and second respectively.
For Belgium, it is another disappointing end to an international tournament, but manager Roberto Martínez said afterward that Belgium can go home with its “heads held high.”
“It’s not easy to win games in the World Cup. We weren’t ourselves in first game, we had a deserved defeat in the second game,” Martínez told the BBC. “Today, we were ready, we created opportunities and, today, there is no regrets. We’re out, but we can leave with our heads held high.”
It was meant to be the last dance for the so-called ‘golden generation’ of Belgium.
With many of its squad approaching or in their mid-30s – including Dries Mertens, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld – the World Cup in Qatar was seen by many as a final opportunity to get over the hump and win an international football title.
But although the squad was packed full of top-level players, the age profile of the team led some to believe that Belgium’s window had passed.
In fact, Belgium’s star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said in an interview with the Guardian that his side had “no chance” to win the title because the players are “too old.”
And, needing a win in its final Group F game against Croatia to advance, Belgium’s weaknesses were clear to see in a slow-paced first half.
The team had a lot of possession without ever really breaking down an organized Croatia while also looking vulnerable on the break.
The biggest talking point of the half came midway through when Croatia thought it had a penalty – 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modrić had even placed the ball on the spot – only for referee Anthony Taylor to eventually rule out the penalty for offside after a video assistant referee (VAR) review.
After the break and following the introduction of Inter Milan striker Lukaku, Belgium increased the tempo as it pressed for a vital goal – Lukaku heading straight into the arms of Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković.
Seconds later though, it was Croatia who had a good chance; Mateo Kovačić’s curled effort tipped away by Thibaut Courtois.
Despite Belgium being the team needing all three points, it was Croatia who ramped up the pressure. Courtois, playing in his 100th game for Belgium, had to be at his best to deny both Modrić and Marcelo Brozović.
Belgium nearly got the all-important breakthrough on the hour mark when Carrasco was denied by heroic block from a defender before Lukaku hit the post when he likely should have scored.
Just minutes later, Lukaku missed another glorious opportunity as he headed home from close range – the ball looked to have gone out moments before De Bruyne crossed it so the effort likely would have been ruled out.
As time ticked away, Belgium had two massive opportunities to rescue a victory.
In added time, Lukaku – with the goal at his mercy – could not sort his feet out and his weak effort was eventually gathered by the goalkeeper near the goal line.
And in the final few seconds, when it looked like Belgium would have one final chance, a superb recovery tackle from 20-year-old Joško Gvardiol saved the day for the Croatians.
It huffed and puffed, but Belgium could not find the vital goal. Afterwards, Martínez was asked about if this marks the end for the country’s ‘golden generation’ and the Spaniard was philosophical.
“You see Youri Tielemans and other young players – the golden generation is doing something that is bringing the next generation on,” he said. “It’s not what names are on the pitch, the legacy can be left in many ways.”
Martínez added when asked if the result was a disappointment: “We wanted to get through but I’m sure the other national teams wanted to get through and that’s the tournament. In the previous World Cup, we won three games in the group stage, we wanted to go all the way.”