The truth is Romelu Lukaku probably should have departed the pitch cradling the match ball but the painful reality is the striker left empty-handed, his hat-trick of second-half misses condemning Belgium to a damning and premature World Cup exit. The worst one of all came deep into stoppage time. Thorgan Hazard crossed from the right and an unmarked Lukaku made a beeline for the six-yard box but instead of converting from close range the ball bumbled off of his chest and into the arms of the Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic. Thierry Henry, one of Roberto Martínez’s assistants, covered his eyes with his tracksuit top. Thomas Meunier chucked a water bottle into the ground. Yannick Carrasco threw a towel over his face. At the final whistle, Lukaku punched through the perspex encasing the Belgium dugout in pure rage before being consoled by Youri Tielemans.
Cue the jokes about Lukaku finally hitting the target. Toby Alderweireld, one of those who surely will not return to this stage, lay on the turf. In the stands a very much on-brand Belgium supporter dressed, naturally, as a bright yellow cone of chips stood hands in pockets in disbelief. Some Belgium fans earlier jeered the arrival of Eden Hazard who entered from the substitutes’ bench for the final seven minutes. For Belgium’s golden generation, this last hurrah fell so painfully flat and afterwards Martínez confirmed this unedifying exit would represent his last game in charge. “I can’t carry on,” he said. Croatia, runners-up four years ago, go through to play the winners of Group E in the last 16, most likely Spain.
In mitigation, Lukaku, who also cannoned a shot against a post, arrived in Qatar on the back of two substitute appearances since August. Perhaps it was no surprise the Internazionale striker was rusty. Not that it makes the circumstances surrounding Belgium’s deeply underwhelming tournament any easier to explain.
At the outset Kevin De Bruyne had dismissed Belgium’s chances of lifting the trophy and in recent days Belgium had to play down talk of rifts after Hazard criticised the sluggish makeup of an ageing defence. The sight of Martínez wildly protesting at the fourth official at the failure to award a back pass against the impressive Josko Gvardiol epitomised the frustrations.
That a Mexican wave rippled around this ground on 41 minutes as Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen tossed the ball from side to side spoke volumes of the entertainment on offer in a first half where the only drama was a VAR review that led the referee, Anthony Taylor, to revoke the award of a Croatia penalty. Vertonghen headed a free-kick clear from the edge of the six-yard box but when Carrasco failed to trap the ball he proceeded to foul Andrej Kramaric, prompting Taylor to point to the spot. Luka Modric grabbed the ball and Croatia’s substitutes lined the edge of the technical area in anticipation – if not expectation – but then Taylor visited the pitchside VAR monitor, which detailed Dejan Lovren was offside when challenging Vertonghen inside the box. The big screens at either end showing AI-technology replays emphasised the tightness of the call.
At 35 Vertonghen was the oldest player in a starting lineup with the eldest average age at a World Cup since Australia’s against Germany in 2010. Martínez’s big call was to leave Eden Hazard on the bench until the 87th minute, with the Real Madrid forward among four players dropped after defeat to Morocco. Dries Mertens and Leandro Trossard made their first starts of the tournament. At almost 27 the Leicester City full-back Timothy Castagne was the puppy of the side.
Belgium made a shaky start – Ivan Perisic curled a shot wide inside 11 seconds after being released by Modric and a minute later Leander Dendoncker was chasing a red-and-white chequered Croatia shirt facing his own goal – and while they roused Martínez changed personnel and system at half-time, the introduction of Lukaku the trigger for a switch to a 3-4-3. Lukaku’s presence gave Croatia something to think about and the defender Gvardiol panicked and stuck out his left leg at the front post to prevent De Bruyne’s cross from reaching the lurking Lukaku. A minute later Lukaku sent a tame header at Livakovic from a De Bruyne cross. Then he sent a header over from another De Bruyne cross, although the offside flag would have ensured any celebrations were shortlived.
But as this game, which burst into life in the second half, ticked towards the hour mark Belgium stitched together a slick move, from which they will wonder how they did not prosper. Particularly Lukaku. De Bruyne angled a wonderful pass, as if by subterfuge, into Carrasco, whose fine first touch allowed him to tip-toe between two Croatia defenders and mosey towards goal.
Carrasco seemed to do everything right but his shot was blocked by the boot of the outstretched Josip Juranovic, who darted in front of Livakovic in desperation. The ball then spiralled invitingly across the box for Lukaku but he could only send a rasping strike against Livakovic’s left post. The maddening thing for Lukaku and Belgium was that worse – much worse – was still to come.