Belgium | Before kickoff at all venues throughout Qatar, a video montage of some of the World Cup’s most amazing moments with a performance of John Newman’s “Love Me Again” in the background is shown on the big screens. It shows Croatia’s legendary, ageless star Luka Modric celebrating one of the goals that propelled his team to the World Cup final four years ago in Russia.
The 37-year-old Modric was down on the field at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, hoping to lead a comparable run—possibly an even better one—in his Last Dance. The golden generation of Belgium, which has also aged, faced off against Modric, whose talent, agility, and tireless running belied his age, and Croatia; this was their final opportunity to win a trophy and demonstrate their promise.
Important Games in the Final Round
There were many important games in the final round of Group “F” for Belgium.
They’d be out if they lost this one. Even a tie wouldn’t be sufficient. And certainly not after Canada and Morocco were tied at the half in the second group matchup, which was taking place at the Al Thumama Stadium. Croatia was able to secure a position in the round of 16 with a draw, but they were aiming for first place.
Ivan Perisic nearly immediately missed the target as Croatia exploded off the starting line. The battle between Kevin de Bruyne and Modric, the two midfield tyrants, was fascinating to watch. Dries Mertens was released free by the renowned Belgian playmaker, who displayed class, but his effort missed the mark.
However, in the 15th minute, after a Modric free-kick, Yannick Carrasco was found to have fouled Andrej Kramaric, giving Croatia what appeared to be their chance. The referee pointed to the spot right away, and Modric pounced on Thibaut Courtois, his Real Madrid teammate. The two were key players on the squad that won the Champions League just five months prior.
The Croatian supporters shouted, “Luka, Luka.” However, the VAR had picked up on something different, and the penalty ruling was reversed as a result of Dejan Lovren’s offside in the buildup. Despite being marginal, Belgium had breathing room.
At halftime, there was no goal, and Roberto Martinez substituted Romelu Lukaku for Dries Mertens. However, Croatia nearly scored in the second half, with Thibaut Courtois save Mateo Kovacic’s ferocious shot. He then blocked Marcelo Brozovic’s low shot a few minutes later.
Belgium was being Questioned
Belgium was being questioned by Croatia, which forced the matter. On the hour mark, however, Belgium suddenly had a significant opportunity. On the left side of the box, De Bruyne located the pocket of space from which he makes such powerful shots and released Carrasco. A horde of Croatian defenders stopped Carrasco from scoring, but the ball broke to Lukaku, whose effort hit the post. When a cross came in from the left, Modric displayed excellent chest control to stop it, but his volley lacked power and was easily saved by Courtois on the other end of the field.
In a last-ditch effort with fewer than 20 minutes left, Martinez inserted Jeremy Doku and Youri Tielemans. However, Belgium was still having trouble creating a gap. Thomas Meunier attempted to take a shot with five minutes left on the clock, but Lukaku blocked it. Meunier was then replaced by Eden Hazard. Then, Thorgan Hazard, the brother of Hazard, sent a cross that Lukaku touched down, but Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic intercepted it just inches from the goal line.
Josko Gvardiol made a last-ditch tackle on Lukaku while stretching as Belgium sent everything forward. They were unable to design a strategy that would get them through. Their supporters were in tears, and Lukaku had his head in his hands. De Bruyne did nothing but ponder the horizon.
The sad part for Belgium would be that despite all of their potential and collective skill, their dreams were never realized. Croatia and Modric could face Spain in the round of 16 games.