Belgium dropped out of third place in Group F at the 2022 World Cup after a goalless draw with Croatia on Thursday.
In a disappointing evening for the Red Devils, Romelu Lukaku and Yannick Carrasco both spurned good chances to score to send Belgium through.
As it was, the world No. 2 ranked side failed to make the breakthrough at the Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, meaning they will not feature in the knockout stages of the tournament.
Morocco won 2-1 against Canada on Thursday – Croatia qualified from the group after finishing first and second respectively.
For Belgium, it was another disappointing end to an international tournament, and the Royal Belgian Football Association announced shortly afterwards that manager Roberto Martinez was stepping down as coach of his national team.
In a post-match interview, Martinez said Belgium could go home “with their heads held high”.
“Winning the World Cup is not easy. In the first game we weren’t there and in the second game we deserved a loss,” Martinez told the BBC.
“Today, we were ready, we created chances, there are no regrets today. We got out, but we can leave with our heads held high.
It was the last dance of Belgium’s so-called ‘Golden Generation’.
With many in its squad – including Dries Mertens, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld – approaching or in their mid-30s – the World Cup in Qatar was seen by many as their final chance to get over the hump and win an international football title.
But while the squad is packed with top players, the age profile of the squad has led some to believe the Belgian’s window has passed.
In fact, Belgium’s star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said in an interview With the Guardian His team had “no chance” of winning the title as the players were “too old”.
And with a need to advance in their final Group F game against Croatia, Belgium’s weaknesses were evident in a sluggish first half.
The team had plenty of possession without breaking down an organized Croatia, while also looking vulnerable on the break.
The biggest talk of the half came when Croatia thought they had a penalty – 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric kept the ball on the spot – only for referee Anthony Taylor to eventually rule out the spot kick for offside. A video assistant referee (VAR) review.
After the break and following the introduction of Lukaku, Belgium upped the ante as they pressed for a key goal – the Inter Milan striker slotting straight into the hands of Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
Seconds later, Croatia had a good chance; Thibaut Courtois saves Mateo Kovacic’s curling effort.
Belgium needed all three points, but Croatia stepped up the pressure. Courtois, making his 100th appearance for Belgium, should be at his best to deny both Modric and Marcelo Brozovic.
Belgium got the all-important breakthrough almost on the hour mark when Carrasco was denied by a heroic block from a defender before Lukaku hit the post where he should have scored.
Moments later, Lukaku missed another wonderful chance as he headed in from close range – the ball was cleared moments before De Bruyne crossed, so the effort would have been avoided.
With time ticking away, Belgium had two big chances to salvage the victory.
In extra time, Lukaku – with the goal at his mercy – couldn’t line up his feet and his feeble effort was eventually collected by the goalkeeper near the goal line.
In the last few seconds, when Belgium looked like they might have one final chance, a brilliant save from 20-year-old Josco Guardiola saved the day for the Croatians.
It was smothered, but Belgium couldn’t find the crucial goal. Later, Martínez was asked if this marked the end of the country’s ‘golden generation’ and whether the Spaniard was a philosopher.
“You see Youri Tielemans and other young players – the ‘golden generation’ doing something that will bring the next generation,” he said. “It’s not just what names are on the pitch, legacy can be left in many ways.”
Asked if the result was disappointing, Martinez added: “We wanted to win, but other national teams want to win, that’s the competition.
“In the previous World Cup, we won three games in the group stage and we wanted to go all the way.”
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