Belgium's golden generation out of World Cup 2022 after draw with Croatia

Kevin de Bruyne and Co fail to fire in Group F decider with goalless draw expected to signal end of a few international careers

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Kevin De Bruyne, imagine, said they had been dulled by age. Reports alleged they were dented by in-fighting.

Whatever the reason, Belgium’s golden generation could not find the silver bullet to their World Cup woes, the game’s second-ranked side bowing out from Qatar at the group stage. Four years ago, they finished third in Russia.

Maybe time had caught up with them. Maybe there was mutiny in the ranks, albeit denied by manager Roberto Martinez – as he would be expected to do. Perhaps Martinez himself wasn’t the right hand to extract the team’s true potential. Immediately after Belgium's World Cup fate was sealed, he announced he would be steeping down. The Ahmad bin Ali Stadium could conceivably be the end of the line for many.

A goalless draw in the Group F decider with Croatia confirmed Belgium to the boot, consigning De Brunye and Romelu Lukaku – on as a second-half substitute, the striker wasted three glorious chances - and Dries Mertens and Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thibaut Courtois, to an early, ignominious exit.

Croatia, runners-up last time out, are through to the knockouts. Morocco, granting the tournament one of its great storylines, join them - as group winners, no less. Belgium were gone.

Lucky against Canada, lacklustre against Morocco, they needed a win on Thursday to continue. Most likely determined to get off on the right foot, they created little in first half, their clearest chance coming when De Bruyne played in Mertens. But the Galatasaray forward fired well over.

Within two minutes, Croatia thought they had a penalty when Yannick Carrasco felled Andrej Kramaric in the Belgium area. However, as Luka Modric waited what felt an eternity to take the spot-kick, the Video Assistant Referee interjected. Referee Anthony Taylor returned from the pitch-side monitor to overturn the initial decision; apparently there had been an offside in the build-up. Replays showed it was fractions.

When a Mexican wave washed through the crowd shortly before half-time, it pointed to the lack of real action. The biggest cheer - it felt anyway - followed news filtering through of Morocco’s lead against Canada in the group’s other game. And again, when the big screen flashed the standings: Morocco were top, two clear of Croatia. As it stood, Belgium would be packing for home.

Requiring an injection of anything, really, Martinez sent on Lukaku for the second half. It nearly paid instant reward: the Inter Milan got his head to De Bruyne’s deep cross, but could not generate any real power.

At the other end, Mateo Kovacic tested Thibaut Courtois’ reflexes. Earning his 100th cap for Belgium, the giant goalkeeper tipped away for the corner. Soon after, Courtois was saving from Marcelo Brozovic and also from Modric. Croatia were turning the screw.

Yet Belgium were inches away from turning it around. Turning around their campaign. De Bruyne sent through Carrasco and, after goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic blocked, Lukaku thudded the rebound onto the inside of the post. The goal gaping, it appeared easier to score. The Belgium bench leapt in disbelief.

The sensation would soon return. A cross from the left was deflected over Livakovic and onto Lukaku’s head and, standing six yards out and unmarked, he headed over. Then, in the dying moments, he failed to react when the ball dropped to him right on the Croatia goalline.

There would be no final reprieve. Last weekend, in advance of their Morocco defeat, De Bruyne declared Belgium had “no chance” of winning the World Cup. Age, he said, meant their best opportunity had come in Russia. He was proved correct. Belgium, with their supposed golden generation, were bust.

Updated: December 01, 2022, 7:53 PM