Belgium's Timothy Castagne (left) duels for the ball with Croatia's Andrej Kramaric during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Dec 1, 2022. (FRANCISCO SECO / AP)
AL RAYYAN, Qatar - Croatia scraped into the World Cup last 16 after a tension-filled 0-0 draw with Belgium that ensured the last hurrah of their opponents' 'golden generation' ended in a dismal group-stage exit on Thursday.
Roberto Martinez's Belgium side, ranked second in the world and semi-finalists four years ago, needed a win at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium to keep their hopes alive but could not break down the Croats who finished as Group F runners up behind Morocco.
Substitute Romelu Lukaku fluffed four golden chances to break the deadlock as Belgium cast off the shackles in the second half, although Croatia, who would have gone home had they lost, had their own opportunities to find a winner.
With so much riding on the outcome, the tension was evident from the early stages and the encounter became something of a tactical chess match in the first half, with both sides careful not to take any unnecessary risks
A lot has been made of Belgium's 'golden generation', a collection of prodigious talents from the biggest clubs, who have perennially been among the favourites at international tournaments for the best part of a decade.
Yet they have never tasted glory and with the brightest lights, such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, already north of 30, it is unlikely they will get another chance at the World Cup.
In a symbolic act of closure, Martinez announced that his six-year spell with the national team was over, with his contract expiring at the end of the World Cup.
"That was my last game with the national team and it was emotional as you can imagine," he told reporters.
Croatia, who next play the winners of Group E, finished with five points, two behind Morocco who beat already-eliminated Canada 2-1 to top the table. Belgium were third with four points after winning just one of their three games.
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Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic, having shrugged off questions about their shortcomings in comparison to the side that finished runners-up four years ago, was in a confident mood.
"It doesn't matter which team we face, if we play at this level we fear no one," he said.
With so much riding on the outcome, the tension was evident from the early stages and the encounter became something of a tactical chess match in the first half, with both sides careful not to take any unnecessary risks.
There was however still some drama. Croatia were awarded a penalty in the 16th minute when Andrej Kramaric's toe was clipped by Yannick Carrasco and referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot.
Just as Luka Modric was preparing to take the kick, however, Taylor was instructed to view the VAR monitor and swiftly reversed his decision after checking for an earlier offside.
The automated system in place flashed up an image on the stadium's big screen that showed Croatia's Kramaric had perhaps strayed the width of a shirt sleeve beyond the last man.
There were few chances in the first half, however, and no shots on target.
Croatia's Marko Livaja (left) duels for the ball with Belgium's Axel Witsel, center, and Belgium's Timothy Castagne during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Dec 1, 2022. (FRANCISCO SECO / AP)
Ivan Perisic flashed a shot wide for Croatia within seconds of the kickoff and Marko Livaja headed over, while Belgium's Carrasco had a shot blocked and Dries Mertens scooped a finish hopelessly over the bar.
Martinez rolled the dice at halftime, summoning Lukaku off the bench and the striker probably should have scored within minutes of coming on but his header at the far post was directed straight at goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
Croatia were then foiled at the other end when Mateo Kovacic's shot was tipped over one-handed by Thibaut Courtois, whose palms were stung by Marcelo Brozovic and Modric minutes later.
It was then Belgium's turn to pile on the pressure. First Carrasco stormed through on goal before his path was blocked and the ball found its way to Lukaku who somehow hit the post with the goal gaping.
He then inexplicably headed over from close range, although replays showed De Bruyne had probably taken the ball out of play before crossing.
Lukaku, whose tournament preparation was hit by injuries and who had not been fit enough to start any of Belgium's three games, then missed two chances from point-blank range in the dying minutes.
He diverted Thomas Meunier's crisp shot wide and then looked on bemused as the ball bounced into his midriff with the goal at his mercy before it bobbled harmlessly to the keeper as Belgium's World Cup hopes ended in disappointment.
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