A montage of some of the World Cup’s most incredible moments, with a rendition of John Newman’s ‘Love Me Again’ in the background, is played on the big screens before kickoff at all venues across Qatar. It features Croatia’s ageless maestro Luka Modric celebrating one of his goals that took his side to the final of the last edition of the World Cup four years ago in Russia.
Down on the pitch at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, here was the 37-year-old Modric, looking to inspire a similar run, perhaps even better in his Last Dance. Standing against Modric, his ability, agility and relentless running belying his age, and Croatia was Belgium’s golden generation, which too has aged; this being their last chance to clinch a trophy to show their potential.
The final set of Group ‘F’ games came with a lot of implications for Belgium.
Lose here and they would be out. Even a draw wouldn’t be enough. And certainly not, after Morocco had taken an early lead against Canada in the other group game which was being played over at the Al Thumama Stadium. A draw was enough to seal a last-16 spot for Croatia but they were going for top spot.
Croatia came firing out of the blocks, Ivan Perisic firing wide almost from kickoff. It made for an intriguing contest between midfield dictators Modric and Kevin de Bruyne. The influential Belgian playmaker showed his class with a surging run to set free Dries Mertens but his shot flashed wide.
But Croatia seemed to have their chance in the 15th minute, Yannick Carrasco adjudged to have fouled Andrej Kramaric after a Modric free-kick. The referee immediately pointed to the spot and Modric bore down on his Real Madrid team-mate Thibaut Courtois – the two being vital cogs of the side that won the Champions League just five months ago. “Luka, Luka,” bellowed the Croatian fans. The VAR, though, had spotted something else and the penalty call was overturned after an offside in the buildup by Dejan Lovren. It was marginal but Belgium could breathe.
Goalless at half-time, Belgium unable to find opportunities, Roberto Martinez threw on Romelu Lukaku in place of Mertens in the second half but it was Croatia who almost scored; Courtois turning away a fierce drive from Mateo Kovacic. And then minutes later, he repelled Marcelo Brozovic’s low shot.
Croatia were asking questions of Belgium, forcing the issue. But then out of nothing, Belgium had a big chance on the hour mark. De Bruyne found the pocket of space from which he’s so devastating and released Carrasco on the left side of the box. Carrasco was denied by a swarm of Croatian defenders but the ball broke to Lukaku, whose shot hit the post. The game was really opening up and on the other end, Modric showed brilliant chest control to take down a cross from the left but his volley lacked power and went comfortably to Courtois.
With less than 20 minutes to go, in a last throw of the dice, Martinez threw on Jeremy Doku and Youri Tielemans. But still Belgium found it hard to carve an opening. When it came with five minutes remaining, Lukaku turned away a shot from Thomas Meunier, who was then replaced by Eden Hazard. Hazard’s brother, Thorgan, then sent a cross that Lukaku touched down only for Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic to gather inches away from the goalline.
Belgium were throwing everything forward and Lukaku was denied by a last-ditch tackle by a stretching Josko Gvardiol. They couldn’t engineer the goal that would take them through. Lukaku had his head in his hands; their fans were in tears. De Bruyne just stared into the distance.
For Belgium, the sad part would be that for all their promise, for all their ability as a collective, the fulfillment never came for them. For Modric and Croatia, a potential last-16 tie against Spain beckons.