Analysis, feature pieces, Match coverage

World Cup 2022: Croatia draw sees Belgium crash out and Martinez depart, they must now rebuild

Croatia's players and teammembers celebrate at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 1, 2022. (Photo by Chandan KHANNA / AFP) (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

As good as Croatia were for sustained periods, Belgium had ample opportunity to punish Zlatko Dalic’s side. Instead, they again rued missed goalscoring chances and a startling lack of urgency at times, with their goalless draw on MD3 meaning the golden generation have failed to qualify from the World Cup group stages. Roberto Martinez’s contract expired at the tournament’s end and well, the inquest into their latest underachievement must be thorough.

lukaku, off the bench, missed great goalscoring chances

TOPSHOT - Belgium's French assistant coach Thierry Henry cobsoles Belgium's forward #09 Romelu Lukaku after the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 1, 2022. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Belgium’s assistant coach Thierry Henry consoles Lukaku after an evening in-front of goal to forget

Although obviously not 100% fit in Qatar, history won’t look too kindly on Romelu Lukaku. He replaced Dries Mertens at half-time, then proceeded to miss four big goalscoring chances.

You read that right, a quartet of opportunities that would’ve made him Belgium’s matchwinning hero – something he made a habit of during his first spell at Inter.

It’s been a whirlwind twelve months for the 29-year-old, from a big-money Chelsea reunion and early excellence, then frozen out of the team and marginalised after a controversial interview pleading for forgiveness with those who once loved him in Italy.

One season-long loan move back to the Nerazzurri later, troublesome injuries and spotty scoring form has seen many question his quality after all. World-class? You decide. He hit the post with the first as the goal was gaping and looked in disbelief. He wasn’t the only one.

The second – a headed snapshot over the bar – would have been ruled out after VAR review as the ball trickled out of play before Kevin de Bruyne’s cross, but he didn’t know in that moment.

He wasn’t the only guilty party for profligacy in the final third, but his big misses reinforced the ever-growing belief it wasn’t to be their night as time wore on. Croatia began lively as promised, going for the win, predictably easing before half-time and re-energised to start the second 45.

They could’ve been ahead too, had Andrej Kramaric not been marginally offside in the build-up before they won a penalty. It was later overturned, but warning signs remained for the Belgians.

Courtois, earning his 50th clean sheet on a landmark 100th International cap, was determined to deliver on a personal level after a disappointing individual display against the Moroccans.

He made a trio of saves early in the second-half to keep Zlatko Dalic’s men at bay, before Lukaku’s two chances in quick succession.

courtois did his bit on 100th cap, but attackers didn’t

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 01: Thibaut Courtois of Belgium looks dejected after their sides' elimination from the tournament during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group F match between Croatia and Belgium at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on December 01, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Mike Hewitt - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Courtois made multiple saves for his 50th clean sheet for Belgium on cap #100, but it wasn’t enough

As much as he’s a target for overexaggerated criticism, Lukaku’s openings were both created, unsurprisingly, by Manchester City’s creator-in-chief de Bruyne.

An excellent defence-splitting pass for the first saw Yannick Carrasco through, but his shot was blocked into Romelu’s path. Same could be said for the second move, too.

Morocco led 2-0, then 2-1 against Canada in the group’s other game. The table – as it stood – flashed up on the stadium’s big screen, so everyone inside was made aware of the permutations.

Simply put, Belgium needed to win. They weren’t urgent enough until it was too late, being carved open on numerous occasions by Croatia’s clever passing exchanges and again only have themselves to blame. Where have we heard this before?

As for those repeatedly questioning Martinez’s suitability to task, hinting he was out of his depth, they have their wish. That goalless draw marks the end of his six-year reign, as the Spaniard’s contract expired at the tournament’s conclusion. As quoted by the BBC, Martinez said:

“That was my last game, emotional as you can imagine. The decision was taken just before the World Cup. I always work towards long-term projects and they need to be set in advance. Since 2018, I had many opportunities to leave, take jobs at club level. I always wanted to be loyal and finish the job. I don’t resign – it is the end of my contract. That was always the plan.

It’s been a real joy, I’m so proud of these players.

It’s been amazing, six years that we have been able to do everything you want to do in a club in a national team and that makes me extremely proud. We love the way this team has played, given us incredible joy.”

Although it’ll be hard to make peace with the fact they couldn’t even manage to progress past the group stages, this latest underachievement should inspire them into a full rebuild.

There are too many egos and insufficient matchwinning quality with an older core – ala Germany’s well-documented attempt under Hansi Flick. It won’t shift overnight, it’ll take time.

It won’t feel like much now, but it’s not all doom and gloom for the Belgians. They possess players like Charles de Ketelaere and Jeremy Doku among their younger crop, but cannot afford to stall their international progression anymore with half-hearted appearances. Let them shine.

Everton midfielder Onana, suspended after successive group stage bookings, has experienced a steady but unspectacular start to life on Merseyside after a £26m move from Lille in August.

The 21-year-old will only grow in confidence – so long as he’s playing regularly – and Belgium need to use that to their advantage.

Axel Witsel turns 34 in January and while he’s been a mainstay for many years now, could be one in a series of over 30s who probably see their minutes drop during upcoming internationals.

Leicester playmaker Youri Tielemans would have further licence to express himself in the final third, an increasingly difficult task to achieve when there’s multiple attackers to accomodate.

Perhaps this early exit is a blessing in disguise. We’ll have to wait and see.

Picture source: Getty Images


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