Croatia holds pressure, advances to the round of 16 and eliminates Belgium from the Cup

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Current world runner-up, Croatia is in the round of 16 of the World Cup in Qatar. This Thursday (1st), the Eastern European team drew without goals with Belgium at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, in Al Rayyan, advancing with the vice-leadership of Group F.

The Croatians ended the bracket with five points, two behind Morocco, who beat Canada 2-1 at Al Thumama Stadium, in Doha, securing first place. With four points, the Belgians said goodbye to the World Cup in the first phase, which had not happened since 1998. The Red Devils had at least three great chances in the final stage, all with Romelu Lukaku, but the center forward, who had just recovered from a thigh injury that almost left him out of the competition, ended up wasting it.

The Qatar Cup, ended early, may have been the last of a talented Belgian generation, with victorious players in their respective clubs and who placed the team at the top of the Fifa ranking between 2018 and 2021, but which failed in the search for great titles. Names such as midfielder Kevin de Bruyne (31 years old), midfielder Alex Witsel (33), defenders Jan Vertonghen (35) and Toby Alderweireld (33), winger Thomas Meunier (31) and forwards Eden Hazard (31) and Dries Mertens (35) are uncertain (most of them unlikely) in the 2026 edition.

Present in the round of 16 for the third time in six participations in World Cups, Croatia will face the leader of Group E, which has Spain, Germany, Costa Rica and Japan. The duel will take place on Monday (5), at 12h (Brasília time), at the Al Janoub Stadium, in Al Wakrah. On the two previous occasions when they made it out of the first round, the Croatians have at least reached the semi-finals.

If the Croatian coach, Zlatko Dalic, sent to the field the same lineup that thrashed Canada by 4-1, the bad performances against Canadians (despite the victory by 1-0) and Moroccans (defeat by 2-0) led Roberto Martínez to mess with the Belgian team. The formation with three defenders was rescued, with Leander Dendoncker alongside Alderweireld and Vertonghen, replacing steering wheel Amadou Onana, suspended due to the number of yellow cards. In the attack, Yannick Carrasco and Leandro Trossard took the places of the brothers Eden and Thorgan Hazard and Michy Batshuayi left for Mertens to enter.

The changes, at first, had an effect and made Belgium faster to exchange passes and counterattack. In the tenth minute, Mertens broke through with Trossard on the left, invaded the area and crossed low to Carrasco, who lost the angle to finish. When he did, in the small area, he kicked the ball over full-back Josip Juranovic. Two minutes later, De Bruyne advanced through the middle and played for Mertens, who entered the area on the left and hit the first time, but took it badly, sending it over, almost at the penalty spot.

The Belgian intensity, however, did not take long to cool down and the team soon found itself trapped in Croatian marking. The Eastern European team, at a more leisurely pace, had a penalty awarded in the 14th minute and annulled three minutes later, with the participation of the video referee (VAR). After Modric’s free kick, Carrasco brought down striker Andrej Kramaric in the penalty area. Signaled on the field, the infraction was canceled by Croatian defender Dejan Lovren being one shoulder ahead in the bid. So banned.

The second half started with Croatia trying to impose themselves in the attack. In the fourth minute, defender Josko Gvardiol found Mateo Kovacic in the area, between Alderweireld and Meunier. The midfielder finished and forced Thibaut Courtois to make a great save. Three minutes later, Kovacic had another chance, this time from the edge of the area, but the shot in the right corner also stopped at Courtois.

The Croatian pressure seemed to have woken up the Belgians, who scared twice in a row, both with Lukaku. In the 14th minute, the striker, who replaced Mertens at half-time, caught a leftover shot by Carrasco that exploded off Juranovic. Free in the area and with the goal open, the Inter Milan striker (Italy) kicked the left post. At 16, in the small area, he headed over the goal, after De Bruyne crossed from the left – the ball, however, had already left the bottom line and the bid would be invalidated in case of a goal.

Belgium went into the heat, but the Qatari night was definitely not for the Red Devils and, especially, for Lukaku. In the 41st minute, the attacker deflected, in the small area, a shot from Meunier on the right, which came close to the left post. At 45 minutes, the number 9 had the chance after a cross from the left by Thorgan Hazard, which goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic let pass. The center forward killed with his chest, almost under the crossbar, but lost control of the ball, recovered by the archer. The Belgian farewell was already a reality.

Translated to english by RJ983

From Brazil, by EBC News

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