Match coverage

World Cup 2022: Belgium boss Martinez rubbishes negative news before crunch clash vs. Croatia

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 30: Roberto Martinez, Head Coach of Belgium, speaks during the Belgium Press Conference at the Main Media Center on November 30, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

Having laboured to a lacklustre 1-0 win over Canada, then being stunned 2-0 by Morocco on MD2, Roberto Martinez’s Belgium enter today’s group stage encounter with Croatia – the World Cup runners-up four years ago – aware tournament progression remains in their hands. As speculation about dwindling team dynamics and squad division persists, the 49-year-old Spaniard insists critics should enjoy what’s left of this golden generation, not inventing stories.

croatia no slouch, as belgium seek response to morocco defeat

(L-R) Belgium's assistant coach Thomas Vermaelen, Belgium's defender #21 Timothy Castagne, Belgium's forward #10 Eden Hazard, Belgium's forward #09 Romelu Lukaku and Belgium's midfielder #07 Kevin De Bruyne take part in a training session at the Salwa Training Site in Salwa Beach, southwest of Doha on November 30, 2022, on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football match between Croatia and Belgium. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Castagne, Hazard, Lukaku and de Bruyne are pictured during Belgium’s training session on Wednesday – with assistant coach and their former teammate Thomas Vermaelen overseeing things

World Cup group stage, MD3
Belgium vs. Croatia
Kick-off: 3pm BST, simultaneously with Canada vs. Morocco
Group F table, as it stands: Croatia and Morocco first and second on 4 points – separated by goal difference – Belgium a point behind the pair in third, Canada already out with 0 points

After two matchdays, it’s been a rough World Cup campaign for Belgium and perhaps the writing was on the wall for this core group of players as early as their Nations League Finals last October.

They had a two-goal cushion against world champions France in their semi-final, yet capitulated defensively in the second-half and only managed three shots in 45 minutes en route to a 3-2 defeat. Had the better chances and yet lost 2-1 vs. European champions Italy three days later.

Couple that with an unconvincing 2022 as far as collective performances against stronger quality nations like the Netherlands and Wales (rather than Estonia and Belarus), and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them crash out of this World Cup before the knockout stages begin this weekend.

Who’s already out of the World Cup?
Ecuador, Qatar, Iran, Wales, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Denmark and Canada.

Last-16 ties already confirmed
December 3: Netherlands vs. United States and Argentina vs. Australia
December 4: England vs. Senegal and France vs. Poland

Brazil and Portugal have both qualified with a game to spare, their group positions TBD.

Instead it’d be the final nail in the coffin for a golden generation of players who, for too long, haven’t delivered when it mattered most on the international scene.

So you can excuse their under-fire manager in Martinez, deflecting blame onto the media – French dirty tricks and Belgian seeking to divide – before a must-win fixture. L’Equipe claimed Kevin de Bruyne and Jan Vertonghen clashed in the dressing room after Sunday’s shock defeat.

Belgium's midfielder #06 Axel Witsel (L) and Belgium's midfielder #07 Kevin De Bruyne (R) take part in a training session at the Salwa Training Site in Salwa Beach, southwest of Doha on November 30, 2022, on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football match between Croatia and Belgium. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Atletico midfielder Witsel (left) and de Bruyne, whose comments caused friction in the camp

The veteran defender was reportedly offended after the Manchester City playmaker said they’re too old to win the World Cup – whether tongue-in-cheek or in his deadpan sarcastic tone. Eden Hazard, who had another evening to forget against Morocco, was reportedly also involved.

Inter Milan forward Romelu Lukaku, on-loan from Chelsea, stepped in as peacemaker. The 29-year-old talisman was doubtful heading into the tournament with a hamstring injury and only managed a nine-minute cameo from the bench during their surprise defeat. He’s set to start.

Leicester fullback Timothy Castagne said de Bruyne’s comments were discussed during a team meeting on Monday and that all is well now.

“I don’t think Kevin meant anything bad by what he said. Italy won the Euros last year with Bonucci and Chiellini in defence, so age is not always a factor.

It’s true we let the criticism affect us to a certain extent, maybe we heard people saying we weren’t a golden generation, started doubting ourselves – perhaps lost some confidence – that’s why the meeting was important.

I don’t think we should target one or two who maybe are not playing to the best of their ability. If we look in the mirror, we all know we could have played better. We’ve sorted out those issues, everything is fine now within the camp.”

Belgian media reported the meeting constituted crisis talks, while claiming several big-name players – like de Bruyne and his goalkeeper – are not on speaking terms.

Thibaut Courtois, set to make his 100th international cap today, called the stories “invented lies” to destabilise the squad. Whether there’s smoke without fire or not, they’re clearly working.

Martinez’s approach to the media was a pointed one.

“We were not happy with the two performances, then you see the storm on the outside and realise that maybe we were listening too much to the outside noise. Now we have some outlets in Belgium that are quite happy to jump on fake news, that’s quite astonishing.

It showed there is maybe more desire to find negative news around this team than really get this nation together, support this team and enjoy the talent of the best generation we have ever had in Belgian football.

That was probably a lesson for all of us – we are here on our own, to fight for what we believe is the way we want to play and hopefully the fans – the real fans – of the Red Devils can enjoy the process.”

The big question now though, is whether his players can finally deliver in a high-stakes game?

croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic: We will expect Belgium’s best

Croatia's players take part in a training session at the Al Erssal training site in Doha on November 30, 2022, on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football match between Croatia and Belgium. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP) (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)
Croatia are unbeaten in eight – dating back to June 3 – and will want to continue that form here

Croatia’s head coach Zlatko Dalic meanwhile, said his team will not play for the draw they need to secure a last-16 berth – regardless of whether Morocco prevail against Canada – and expects to face a motivated side keen to prove why they’re ranked second in the FIFA world rankings.

“Belgium are a great team and in truth I would not have chosen this to be our last, decisive game of the group.

The game will not be fought by media stories or rumours, we will be playing a top team with phenomenal players – you don’t become a bad team overnight. We respect Morocco and Canada, but Belgium are a class above them.”

Hoffenheim striker Andrej Kramaric netted a brace, while Tottenham’s Ivan Perisic created two assists during their commanding 4-1 win over John Herdman’s Canada side last time out.

Although most of the team picks itself, will the 56-year-old be tempted into making any changes to his starting eleven, given the impactful cameos from Mislav Orsic and Lovro Majer on Sunday?

Picture source: Getty Images, quotes via Guardian


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