The temptation for Luka Modric, when he shakes hands with his Real Madrid colleague and opposing international captain this evening, must be to make a sly joke at the expense of Eden Hazard’s Belgium.
“Are we too old as well?” Croatia’s Modric could ask, gently rubbing salt in one of the many wounds collected by the Belgians during their fractious first week of World Cup action.
A curious remark in an interview given by Kevin de Bruyne, 31, about Belgium’s World Cup chances – “we’re too old,” he said – has been followed by well-sourced reports of a dressing-room bust-up and finger-pointing between senior players.
There are simmering questions, inside and outside the camp, over whether Belgium’s so-called golden generation are slowing up, their manager Roberto Martinez missing opportunities to refresh the line-up with younger men.
The fact is, Croatia might pose themselves similar questions – Modric is 37, one of five over-30s who were in their side in their opening Group F draw against Morocco – except the loyalty shown by their manager Zlatko Dalic to his seniors has yielded four points so far.
It means they go into the last group fixture needing only a draw to progress. Belgium – who fielded six over-30s in the starting XI who lost 2-0 to Morocco – must win to guarantee a place in the last 16.
Martinez, who acknowledges there have been “tensions” within the squad following lacklustre displays against Canada – a 1-0 win – and Morocco, said on Wednesday that the make-or-break meeting between his bronze-medallists from Russia 2018 and that tournament’s finalists “can be the moment our World Cup begins, a second chance we have to seize.”
Belgium 0 Morocco 2: player ratings
In his pre-match press conference, he also leaned heavily on what his senior players, under Martinez’s guidance since 2016, have achieved in the past: “Four years at the top of the Fifa rankings,” he reminded reporters, and called the Belgium of his period in charge “the most talented team in the history of Belgian football”.
Modric would nod to that. He’s never been on a winning Croatia side against Belgium, and endorses the view that no country at this World Cup has a finer goalkeeper than Thibaut Courtois, so often Madrid’s hero on the way to last season’s Champions and Liga Double.
As for Hazard, figurehead of this guilded generation of Belgian players, Modric and Madrid are still waiting for the version of him Madrid paid Chelsea over €100 million for in the summer of 2019. In more than three injury-hampered, inconsistent years at Madrid, Hazard has started only 40 matches across La Liga and Champions League.
Hazard, 31, came to Qatar on the back of barely 70 minutes of club action since September, and sensitive that his status in the national team was threatened by the sharp form of, among others, Brighton’s Leandro Trossard.
De Bruyne, also 31, meanwhile fell below his own high standards against Morocco and, in another of those occasional moments when De Bruyne speaks candidly to reporters, questioned why he had been made man of the match in the narrow win over a lively Canada.
Hazard then made his own headlines with a remark after the loss to Morocco: “Our defenders are not the fastest,” he said, “and they know that.” Defender Jan Vertonghen, 35, confronted the captain, and according to reports, striker Romelu Lukaku felt he had to intervene to keep the peace in the dressing-room.
Lukaku is one senior player and Golden Generation flag-bearer Martinez would like to have leaned on more in Qatar. The striker, his country’s all-time record goalscorer, has been fit enough only for 10 minutes – coming off the bench, chasing in vain a comeback against Morocco.
Martinez hopes the Inter Milan man can have a bigger role in the D-Day against Croatia. “It’s important he is there,” said the manager. “He makes a difference on the pitch and off it, in the dressing-room. He’s a leader with influence.”
Belgium, long on experience, urgently need a few of those all pulling in the same direction.