Romelu Lukaku alone could have shot Belgium into the round of 16 several times, but cried bitter tears after the 0-0 win against Croatia and angrily hit the coach's bench. The internationally unfinished Kevin De Bruyne had to be comforted by the Croatians after Belgium's first World Cup preliminary round since 1998.
The chaotic Belgian participation in the World Cup in Qatar ended in a fiasco, the golden generation of Rode Duivels said goodbye after the preliminary round and remains without a title.
Vice world champion Croatia with ex-world footballer Luka Modric, on the other hand, keeps the chance of the world title open and is in the round of 16 after the required point against Belgium. Against the Belgians, who were slightly improved this time, the 2018 World Cup runner-up had to tremble a lot in the end and celebrated the hard-fought point enthusiastically. Lukaku, who came on for Belgium in the second half, missed several top-class goals for Belgium to win (60th minute, 62nd, 87th, 90th).
Martinez: "We're going out of here with our heads held high"
"Today's performance was really us. Today we were ready, we created a lot of chances to score. We're going out here with our heads held high," said Belgium coach Roberto Martínez. "Now the boys have to move up and show what they can do," said Martinez, who left his own future open. "I will not comment on that."
De Bruyne is still without an international title - whether in the club or in the national team. Three times in the quarterfinals, plus third place in Russia was the result of the last major tournaments - the best vintage that Belgium has ever produced remains unfinished.
"This generation deserves respect and admiration," said Belgium national coach Roberto Martínez before the all-or-nothing game. In the days since arriving in the Gulf, however, the talented vintage had primarily produced plenty of negative headlines. An alleged cabin Zoff, a mole affair up to the crisis summit had accompanied the weak sporting performances.
Croatia breaks a record - almost
Reason enough for Martinez to reconsider his starting XI. There was no room for the superstar and captain Eden Hazard, who had been out of shape for a long time, against Croatia, and his brother and Bundesliga professional Thorgan also slipped out of the starting line-up. It wasn't enough for the battered superstar Lukaku either, the Inter Milan striker sat on the bench and came into play in the second half.
First of all, not much was missing and Belgium would have conceded the fastest goal in World Cup history. After just nine seconds, ex-Bundesliga professional Ivan Perisic shot just wide of the goal from the left-hand position. He almost surpassed Turkey's Hakan Sükür, who scored eleven seconds later in the match for third place against South Korea at the 2002 World Cup.
Belgium without the necessary punch
In any case, the Croatians got off to a better start and caused a lot of confusion in the Rode Duivels' defence. The Belgians were lucky that the penalty kick was conceded again in the 15th minute by the German video referee Marco Fritz. The fouled Andrej Kramaric from the Bundesliga club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim had previously been offside by the tiniest cross. So there was no spicy duel between Modric and Thibaut Courtois, both of whom are among the top performers at Champions League winners Real Madrid. Courtois played his 100th cap on Thursday.
The Belgians lacked penetrating power against the stable Croatian defense for a long time. High time for "Big Rom", the Belgian record goalscorer. And it was less than four minutes before Lukaku came into action for the first time after being substituted on. With the striker there was again a passing station in the headquarters, who could fix and distribute the balls. And only the post prevented Lukaku's golden goal (60th).
The more the Belgians risked, the more vulnerable they became on the defensive. Courtois was there for shots from Mateo Kovacic (50'), Marcelo Brozovic (54') and Modric (54' and 68'). Lukaku missed the last big chances for Belgium shortly before the end (87th/90th). Even the late substitution of Eden Hazard could no longer prevent the bitter end of the Belgians.