Belgium's Leandro Trossard (left) and Croatia's Josko Gvardiol fight for the ball 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. (LUCA BRUNO / AP)
AL RAYYAN, Qatar - On the face of it the 0-0 draw for Croatia to take them into the World Cup knockout round at the expense of Belgium suggests a tactical masterclass from their coach Zlatko Dalic.
A draw was all the 2018 runners-up required to avoid a group stage exit and the wise old heads of Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Dejan Lovren combined to ensure they got one.
Going deep in a World Cup requires good fortune, but Croatia used up a large dollop of it against a misfiring Belgium side
The 37-year-old Modric pulled the strings early on as Croatia went for the goal that would have spared their nerves later in a subdued Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
At times in the first half it looked like a straight duel between Modric and his Belgian counterpart Kevin de Bruyne who looked dangerous every time he got on the ball.
Croatia shackled the Manchester City playmaker reasonably effectively in an opening period resembling a chess match with Belgium reluctant to chase the game and Dalic's side content to watch and wait.
After the break, however, the game became far too open for Croatia's comfort and the composure usually expected of a team packed with tournament experience rather vanished.
Modric, of all people, began to misplace passes, Perisic kept choosing the wrong options and in the end the real reason Croatia are not packing their bags for home rather than the world's second-ranked side is old-fashioned luck.
After all, there was no method in the way they allowed a half-fit Romelu Lukaku, who came off the bench in the second half as Belgium coach Roberto Martinez rolled the dice, four golden opportunities to put his side ahead.
To the relief of the Croatia fans gnawing their nails at the other end of the stadium, Lukaku looked not like the player who scored four goals for Belgium as they came third in 2018, but a man bereft of touch and confidence.
He hit the post with the goal gaping, headed another effort over from point-blank range, shinned one more wide and finally, when given the freedom of the area again, bundled an ugly shot straight at Croatia keeper Dominik Livakovic.
Going deep in a World Cup requires good fortune, but Croatia used up a large dollop of it against a misfiring Belgium side.
Dalic will point to the fact that it was mission accomplished, even if they made life hard for themselves with two 0-0 draws in the group and a patchy victory over Canada.
Had Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Kovacic taken chances to kill off Belgium in the second half, Croatia would have won Group F rather than finish second behind Morocco.
There were plenty of causes for optimism for Croatia. Josko Gvardiol again showed his pedigree at the back while Mateo Kovacic demonstrated that Modric is not the only gem in Croatia's midfield.
Also, instead of an expected clash with Spain in the next round a bizarre climax to Group E means they play Japan next.
Then there is the fact that when Croatia do make it out of the group stage at a World Cup they tend to go far.
This is their sixth World Cup and on the two other occasions they avoided a first-round exit they finished third in 1998 and second in 2018. They may well be feeling lucky.
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