Croatia played out a goalless draw with Belgium in a Group F match at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Qatar on Thursday to qualify for the knock-out round.
Morocco’s victory over Canada in another match of the same group meant that Belgium, who finished third in the last World Cup, had to bow out at the group stage.
The so-called golden generation of Belgium thus failed to win a major title for their country. Croatia, runners-up in the last World Cup, will now take on Japan in a Round of 16 clash on Monday.
Here’s a look at the two things that stood out in the match:
Belgium were not direct in their approach in the first half
Belgium had to win, while Croatia needed only a tie. Even so, the Belgians did not look desperate enough in the first half, with Dries Mertens as the centre-forward in a 4-3-3 formation.
This line-up left the Belgians a bit toothless up front as Mertens is more comfortable playing behind the striker or on the flanks. He played as a false 9, dropping down to create moves, for much of the first half.
Moreover, Belgium’s attack also lacked width through the right as Leandro Trossard could not put much pressure on Croatia’s defense and only Yannick Carrasco managed to make some runs through the inside-left channel.
As a result, Belgium could not play direct football for the majority of the first half and relied on the counter-attacks originated from their own half, with the talismanic Kevin De Bruyne behind most of them. De Bruyne played a wonderful pass to Mertens on one occasion from a swift counter, but the latter could not keep his shot on target.
Croatia, meanwhile, played a lot of passes in the middle third and attacked primarily through the right as their right-back Josip Juranovic went into overlaps at times. Matteo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic kept things tight in the midfield, as Luka Modric, playing in his 158th international match, filled the playmaker’s job.
Belgium made a few changes in second half, but Croatia held firm
Roberto Martinez introduced Romelu Lukaku at the start of the second half to throw in a genuine striker to make his intentions clear. Lukaku got an opportunity within a few minutes, but meekly headed De Bruyne’s wonderful cross to Dominik Livakovic in Croatia’s goal.
Croatia kept attacking through the left flank to put pressure on Thomas Meunier, who could hardly go into overlaps and stayed inside his own half. Borna Sosa and Ivan Perisic combined well down the left to launch a number of attacks and Thibaut Courtois had to come up with a flurry of saves, including a shot from his Real Madrid teammate Modric.
As the half progressed, Meunier started going into overlaps and on one occasion he found De Bruyne with a pass from near the half-line and the latter played to Carrasco, who could not shoot past the Croatian defenders. However, the ball ricocheted to Lukaku, whose shot hit the goalpost and went out.
Belgium replaced Trossard with Thorgan Hazard and then Leander Dendoncker and Carrasco with Youri Tielemans and Jeremy Doku, respectively. Tielemans gave adequate cover to Meunier and the intensity of Croatia’s attacks through the left decreased after his introdcution.
Doku made a few speedy runs and on one occasion, ran inside to play a pass to Thorgan Hazard, who then played a cross from the right. However, Lukaku failed to connect properly from point-blank range to miss yet another opportunity for sealing the deal for the Belgians.
Eden Hazard entered with around 10 minutes remaining, but could not do much to alter the scoreline.