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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Xinhua News Agency/PA Images Lukaku dejected after a miss.
# 2022 World Cup
Lukaku's shocking misses cost Belgium as they exit the World Cup
Roberto Martinez’ side bow out after a 0-0 draw with Croatia.

Belgium 0

Croatia 0

THE ROM TRIUMVIRATE. 

Belgium are out of the World Cup’s group stage, three inexplicable Romelu Lukaku misses costing them the win they needed to progress at Croatia’s expense. Lukaku ended the game by the touchline, sobbing into the shoulder of coach Thierry Henry.

Lukaku’s misses were extraordinary, each worst than the last, but it will be of cold comfort to him that he at least gave his team something to regret. He came on for the awful Dries Mertens at half-time and at least offered some kind of goal scoring threat, as for too long Belgium’s Golden Generation instead looked like the boys of pewter, a scratchy alloy of aged greats, unfit difference-makers and callow successors. 

This officially marked the end of the era, with Roberto Martinez announcing his exit after the game

Croatia, meanwhile, were left clinging on at the end, and a repeat of their heroics from last time out looks well beyond them. 

Having made four changes for the loss to Morocco, today Martinez made five, though Amadou Onana dropped out because of suspension. Figuring out Martinez’ systems can sometimes be like trying to catch water, but here he retained a back four with 35-year-old Dries Mertens – nobody’s idea of a target man – leading the line. The Belgian camp has been stalked by stories of behind-scenes bust-ups but before kick-off the entire squad, subs and all, joined in the pre-match huddle on the side of the pitch. Team spirit is an illusion glimpsed at the moment of victory…and perhaps before anything has happened, as Belgium were instantly lucky not to have fallen behind when Ivan Perisic cut inside and slammed a shot just wide of the post. There were 11 seconds on the clock. Croatia exposed the same space moments later, though this time Andrej Kramaric couldn’t fashion Mateo Kovacic’s square pass into a shot at goal.

Belgium were nervy at best, their play often breaking down with a series of sloppy, awful passes, before they eventually settled into the game. If Belgium’s gameplay was to play without a natural striker to create space into which Kevin De Bruyne could break, it should have yielded a dividend after 12 minutes. De Bruyne cantered into empty grass after a Croatian attack broke down and with an option to his right, he instead slid a perfect through-pass for Mertens, who chunked a shocking first-time effort into the stand.

Meanwhile, word filtered through that Morocco had gone 2-0 up against Canada which clarified the stakes here: a draw suited Croatia, while Belgium needed a win. But their precarity didn’t spark anything, and instead Belgium trundled their way through the first half at the same pace as their opponents. The game desperately needed a goal, and it might have had it but for another progressive intervention by VAR. When Jan Vertonghen half-cleared a free-kick and Yannick Carrasco grazed his studs down Andrej Kramaric, English referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot. There was time for Taylor to brief Thibault Courtois not to move from his line and for Modric to put the ball on the spot before the VAR began whispering sweet regulation into Taylor’s ear. The penalty was overturned not for the foul but because the automated offside had spotted that Dejan Lovren was offside by a fraction of an inch, and, though Lovren did not touch the ball, Taylor had to adjudicate on whether he had interfered in play by challenging Vertonghen for the initial header. And thus the penalty was disallowed because of a player who did not touch the ball in a phase of play distinct from the penalty incident was imperceptibly offside. Welcome to the glory game.

Martinez mercifully sprang the half-fit Lukaku from the bench at half-time, replacing the aged and ragged Mertens who, at 35, was too old to be out there. His presence gave De Bruyne a focal point about which to rove and cause trouble: Gvardiol had to be instantly on-guard to divert his endline cross behind for a corner. Croatia, in the enviable but nonetheless awkward position of having something to lose, sparked into life, with Courtois batting away shots from Kovacic, Brozovic, and then Modric. Then came Lukaku’s toil. First De Bruyne slipped Carrasco through, whose shot rebounded to Lukaku who, with the goal at his mercy, slammed his shot against the post. De Bruyne slapped his hands to his head.

Disbelief reigned again two minutes later. Again it was all created by De Bruyne, who sprinted to the end-line and clipped in a cross that goalkeeper Dominik Livkavoc made a complete hames of, coming for the ball and then missing it, which resulted in the ball butting off Lukaku’s head and, unbelievably, over the crossbar. In his defence, Lukaku didn’t expect the ball to come to it. Everyone else couldn’t believe he hadn’t scored.

Martinez pushed his chips in, sacrificing Dendoncker and Carrasco for Youri Tielemans and 20-year-old Jeremy Doku, and now the first-half tedium was replaced by late, desperate thrills. Juranovic charged down a vacant right wing and was picked out by Kovacic, but he couldn’t seal the game as his pull-back was desperate. The Croatian defence, meanwhile, became a jittery mess. Gvardiol’s attempt at dealing with a long ball became an uncomfortably hefty backpass to his goalkeeper, with Taylor unmoved by pleas for an indirect free-kick. Minutes later Gvardiol beckoned for his goalkeeper to come and deal with another ball over the top, only to be emphatically ignored. De Bruyne nipped in and won a corner.

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Lukaku reserved his worst for the final moments. Doku weaved brilliantly into the box and played a perfect ball to Thorgan Hazard, who too did everything right, pushing the ball out of his feet and whipping a stunning cross to the backpost to Lukaku who, two yards out, somehow contrived to get so wrong and light a touch as to divert the ball away from the goalline. 

There was no fourth chance.  

Belgium: Thibaut Courtois; Thomas Meunier (Eden Hazard, 86′), Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen (captain); Timothy Castagne; Axel Witsel, Leander Dendoncker (Youri Tielemans 71′), Yannick Carrasco (Jeremy Doku, 71′);  Leandro Trossard (Thorgan Hazard, 58′), Dries Mertens (Romelu Lukaku, HT), Kevin De Bruyne 

Croatia: Dominik Livakovic; Josip Juranovic, Dejan Lovren, Josko Gvardiol, Borna Sosa; Marcelo Brozovic, Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic (; Andrej Kramaric (Mario Pasalic, 64′) Marko Livaja (Bruno Petkovic, 64′), Ivan Perisic  

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