Belgium were eliminated from the World Cup in the group stage after drawing 0-0 with Croatia at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Thursday.
Morocco’s 2-1 win over Canada elsewhere in Group F meant Belgium needed to win to progress to the last 16, while Croatia needed to avoid defeat.
A low-quality first half, in which only Croatia’s missed penalty was talked about, made way for a much more exciting second period.
Romelu Lukaku was brought on at half-time and missed a few big chances, although the game ended goalless as Belgium suffered a shock early exit.
Belgium got an early reprieve when a penalty awarded for Yannick Carrasco’s challenge on Andrej Kramaric was disallowed for offside on Dejan Lovren in the set-piece as Luka Modrić was about to take over.
Lukaku’s arrival coincided with a definite revival in the game, the Inter striker forcing Dominik Livakovič into the first save of the game just over three minutes after coming on.
That in turn sparked Croatia and Thibaut Courtois – on his 100th start – struck three times in four minutes to deny the midfield trio of Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric.
Lukaku then hit the post with plenty of netting to head home after Carrasco’s blocked shot fell nicely into his path before heading in from close range with the goal gaping again – although VAR may have intervened even if he scored.
The biggest mistake was yet to come as Lukaku failed to help the ball over the line from a few yards when Thorgan Hazard’s cross was missed by Lovren, which meant elimination for Belgium and second place behind Morocco for Croatia.
1. Croatia (4-3-3)
GK: Dominik Livakovic – 4/10 – Really, really, really sketchy in his box but somehow lived to tell the tale.
RB: Josip Juranovic – 6/10 – Wonderful sliding challenge to block Lukaku’s goal-bound shot. Loose on the ball occasionally.
CB: Dejan Lovren – 6/10 – Stayed back as the more proactive Gvardiol led the Croatian defence. So unsure of his surroundings and looked nervy.
CB: Josko Gvardiol – 9/10 – Consistently drove forward from defence, starting attacks with quick feet. Recovered the ball frequently and didn’t waste it. A monstrous performance.
LB: Borna Sosa – 7/10 – A consistent threat on the left with some searching deliveries from the left and pot shots from distance.
CM: Luka Modric – 7/10 – Constantly received possession and created space as he and Brozovic played through Belgium. Saw an effort denied by Courtois.
CM: Marcelo Brozovic – 7/10 – Became increasingly involved in some lovely interplay with his esteemed midfield colleagues.
CM: Mateo Kovacic – 7/10 – Came close twice at the second half, twice being denied by Courtois.
RW: Andrej Kramaric – 5/10 – Scored against Canada but didn’t offer much of a threat here and came off after an hour.
ST: Marko Livaja – 6/10 – Headed over in the first half. Linked play nicely, setting up a Modric strike which was saved.
LW: Ivan Perisic – 5/10 – Started brightly with a shot which whizzed just past the post. Certainly not short on effort but final product eluded him.
SUB: Mario Pasalic (64′ for Kramaric) – 6/10
SUB: Bruno Petkovic (64′ for Livaja) – 6/10
SUB: Lovro Majer (90′ for Kovacic) – N/A
Manager: Zlatko Dalic – 7/10 – Croatia’s midfield was too experienced for Belgium to compete with, with Dalic setting his side up well to combat the Red Devils.
2. Belgium (4-2-3-1)
GK: Thibaut Courtois – 8/10 – His 100th appearance for Belgium and did well to deny Kovacic twice at the start of the second half. Croatia would have been out of sight without Courtois.
RB: Thomas Meunier – 7/10 – Fun battle with Perisic, one he edged after the Tottenham man’s first-minute chance.
CB: Toby Alderweireld – 6/10 – As assured in possession as always and tried to drop long balls over the top of Croatia’s defence.
CB: Jan Vertonghen – 6/10 – Made a couple of interventions to deny Croatia, including a one-on-one with Perisic.
LB: Timothy Castagne – 6/10 – Saw plenty of the ball and kept hold of it, but struggled to threaten in the final third.
CM: Leander Dendoncker – 6/10 – Nice run into the box set up Mertens for a half-chance. Picked up a booking in the second half.
CM: Axel Witsel – 5/10 – Sluggish across the turf in midfield and still doesn’t look capable of bossing important World Cup games.
AM: Dries Mertens – 4/10 – Curled over with Belgium’s best opening of the first half. Couldn’t get enough on a Dendoncker ball to divert it goalwards. Hooked off at half time.
RW: Kevin De Bruyne – 7/10 – Belgium only looked threatening when De Bruyne was in possession. Picked out a couple of inviting passes but none of his teammates could match his level.
ST: Leandro Trossard – 5/10 – Was a little wasteful with some errant passing and came off having offered little threat.
LW: Yannick Carrasco – 5/10 – One example of dazzling feet got Carrasco in on goal, but Juranovic’s block denied him.
SUB: Romelu Lukaku (46′ for Mertens) – 2/10 – Struck the post when he had to put Belgium ahead. Missed chance after chance and clearly isn’t sharp right now.
SUB: Thorgan Hazard (59 for Trossard) – 5/10
SUB: Jérémy Doku (72′ for Carrasco) – 5/10
SUB: Youri Tielemans (72′ for Dendoncker) – 5/10
SUB: Eden Hazard (87′ for Meunier) – N/A
Manager: Roberto Martinez – 1/10 – How hard is it to grab Kevin, say ‘You play centrally and boss everything out there’, and just let him get on with it? No? Play him on the right, you say? No wonder Belgium have gone out at the group stage.