Belgium crash out of World Cup as Lukaku’s misses let Croatia off hook

Romelu Lukaku missed several glaring chances for Belgium as they crashed out of the World Cup to let Croatia off the hook after their goalless draw

The truth is Romelu Lukaku probably should have departed the pitch cradling the match ball but the painful reality is the striker left empty-handed, his hat-trick of second-half misses condemning Belgium to a damning and premature World Cup exit. The worst one of the lot came deep into stoppage time. Thorgan Hazard crossed from the right and an unmarked Lukaku made a beeline for the six-yard box but instead of converting from close range the ball bumbled off of his chest and into the arms of the Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.

Thierry Henry, one of Roberto Martínez’s assistants, covered his eyes with his tracksuit top. Thomas Meunier chucked a water bottle into the ground. Yannick Carrasco threw a towel over his face. At the final whistle, Lukaku punched through the casing of the Belgium dugout in pure rage before being consoled by Youri Tielemans.

Cue the jokes about Lukaku finally hitting the target. Toby Alderweireld, one of those who surely will not return to this stage, lay on the turf. In the stands a very much on-brand Belgium supporter dressed, naturally, as a bright yellow cone of chips stood hands in pockets in disbelief.

Some fans earlier jeered the arrival of Eden Hazard who entered from the substitutes’ bench for the final seven minutes. For Belgium’s golden generation, this last hurrah fell so painfully flat and afterwards Martínez confirmed this unedifying exit would represent his last game in charge. “I can’t carry on,” he said. Croatia, runners-up four years ago, go through to play the winners of Group E in the last 16.

In mitigation, Lukaku, who also cannoned a shot against a post, arrived in Qatar on the back of two substitute appearances since August. Perhaps it was no surprise the Internazionale striker was rusty. Not that it makes the circumstances surrounding Belgium’s deeply underwhelming tournament any easier to explain.

At the outset Kevin De Bruyne had dismissed his side’s chances of lifting the trophy and in recent days Belgium had to play down talk of rifts after Eden Hazard criticised the sluggish makeup of an ageing defence. The sight of Martínez wildly protesting to the fourth official about the failure to award a free-kick for a back-pass after the ball went to the keeper off the impressive Josko Gvardiol epitomised the frustrations.

It was a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

That a Mexican wave rippled around this ground on 41 minutes as Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen tossed the ball from side to side spoke volumes of the entertainment on offer in a first half where the only drama was a VAR review that led the referee, Anthony Taylor, to revoke the award of a Croatia penalty.

Belgium’s assistant coach Thierry Henry comforts Romelu Lukaku after Belgium’s early exit.
Belgium’s assistant coach Thierry Henry comforts Lukaku after Belgium’s early exit. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

Vertonghen headed a free-kick clear from the edge of the six-yard box but when Carrasco failed to trap the ball he proceeded to foul Andrej Kramaric, prompting Taylor to point to the spot. Luka Modric grabbed the ball and Croatia’s substitutes lined the edge of the technical area in anticipation – if not expectation – but then Taylor visited the pitchside VAR monitor, which detailed Dejan Lovren was offside when challenging Vertonghen inside the box. The big screens at either end showing AI-technology replays emphasised the tightness of the call.

At 35 Vertonghen was the oldest player in a starting lineup with the eldest average age at a World Cup since Australia’s against Germany in 2010. Martínez’s big call was to demote Eden Hazard to the bench, with the Real Madrid forward among four players dropped after the defeat to Morocco. Dries Mertens and Leandro Trossard made their first starts of the tournament. At almost 27 the Leicester full-back Timothy Castagne was the puppy of the side.

Belgium made a shaky start – Ivan Perisic curled a shot wide inside 11 seconds after being released by Modric and a minute later Leander Dendoncker was chasing a red-and-white chequered Croatia shirt facing his own goal. While they roused, Martínez changed personnel and system at half-time, Lukaku coming on the trigger for a switch to a 3-4-3.

Lukaku’s presence gave Croatia something to think about and Gvardiol panicked and stuck out his left leg at the front post to prevent De Bruyne’s cross from reaching the lurking striker. A minute later Lukaku sent a tame header at Livakovic from a De Bruyne cross. Then he sent a header over from another De Bruyne cross, although the offside flag would have ensured any celebrations were short‑lived.

But as this game, which burst into life in the second half, ticked towards the hour mark Belgium stitched together a slick move, from which they will wonder how they did not prosper. Particularly Lukaku. De Bruyne angled a wonderful pass, as if by subterfuge, into Carrasco, whose fine first touch allowed him to tiptoe between two Croatia defenders and mosey towards goal.

Carrasco seemed to do everything right but his shot was blocked by the boot of the outstretched Josip Juranovic, who darted in front of Livakovic in desperation. The ball then spiralled invitingly across the box for Lukaku but he could only send a rasping strike against Livakovic’s left post. The maddening thing for Lukaku and Belgium was that worse – much worse – was still to come.


Ben Fisher at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Roberto Martínez accuses Belgian media of trying to divide country
Roberto Martínez accused the French media of dirty tricks and the Belgian press of seeking to divide their country before the must-win match against Croatia

Andy Hunter in Doha

30, Nov, 2022 @4:50 PM

Article image
Roberto Martínez exits as dreams of golden generation end with whimper
Belgium’s manager and his trophyless group of players leave a diminished legacy after elimination from the World Cup

Andy Hunter at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium

01, Dec, 2022 @8:22 PM

Article image
‘It’s emotional’: Roberto Martínez quits as Belgium coach after World Cup exit
Roberto Martínez has stepped down as Belgium head coach after their World Cup exit, insisting: ‘I didn’t resign, this is the end of my contract’

Ben Fisher at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium

01, Dec, 2022 @7:43 PM

Article image
Croatia knock Japan out of World Cup after Livakovic’s heroics in shootout
Dominik Livakovic saved three penalties as Croatia won 3-1 in a shootout after a 1-1 draw at Al Janoub Stadium

Andy Hunter at Al Janoub Stadium

05, Dec, 2022 @6:12 PM

Article image
Croatia reach World Cup semi-final as Brazil miss twice in penalty shootout
Brazil and Croatia were locked at 1-1 after extra time and then Rodrygo and Marquinhos failed to score from the penalty spot as Croatia reached the last four

Nick Ames at Education City Stadium

09, Dec, 2022 @6:03 PM

Article image
Croatia 0-0 Belgium: World Cup 2022 – as it happened
Belgium went out of the tournament at the group stage after the substitute Romelu Lukaku missed a series of late chances

Rob Smyth

01, Dec, 2022 @5:18 PM

Article image
Courtois mistake and Aboukhlal help intrepid Morocco shock Belgium
Abdelhamid Sabiri’s set piece and a stoppage-time goal from Zakaria Aboukhlal gave Morocco a deserved 2-0 win against Belgium to shake up Group F

Andy Hunter at Al Thumama Stadium

27, Nov, 2022 @3:30 PM

Article image
Croatia showed once again they are the masters of walking football | Nick Ames
Despite a lack of pace, Zlatko Dalic’s side have a habit of wearing the opposition down, as Japan found out in a shootout defeat

Nick Ames at Al Janoub Stadium

05, Dec, 2022 @8:59 PM

Article image
Belgium run ragged by Canada but Michy Batshuayi goal earns them win
Canada dominated for long periods of this Group F encounter but Michy Batshuayi scored just before half-time, giving Belgium a 1-0 win

Andy Hunter at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium

23, Nov, 2022 @9:27 PM

Article image
Vlasic and Ounahi denied as Morocco earn opening draw against Croatia
The 2018 finalists Croatia started their World Cup campaign with a 0-0 draw against Morocco, whose manager Walid Regragui said he was happy

Paul MacInnes at Al Bayt Stadium

23, Nov, 2022 @12:28 PM