Qatar December 02, 2022: Haunted. Utterly, totally haunted. The expression on Romelu Lukaku’s face was almost painful to watch. It looked like intrusion in a public arena as he missed a hat-trick of chances that would have taken Belgium into the last-16 of this World Cup.
Instead they are out. At the final whistle Lukaku, who had come on as a half-time substitute, struggling for form and fitness just like Belgium, almost looked in a trance. His team-mates dropped to the turf but he kept on walking, walking straight to assistant manager, and his mentor, Thierry Henry who wrapped his arms around him protectively.
Then the tears flowed. Lukaku’s powerful frame heaved as he cried and cried before there was also anger – he walked to the Belgium dug-out and punched out a huge piece of Perspex before slumping in a chair. What extraordinary drama.
For Belgium’s golden generation this has been a World Cup of pure base metal. It is the end of an era for them and the end, in all probability after six years in charge, for their coach Roberto Martinez.
As England so painfully know labels such as ‘golden generation’ become a millstone and for Belgium the re-building starts after one of their most feted players, Eden Hazard, sat on the bench until the 87th minute and watched as Lukaku struck the post, then failed to convert Thomas Meunier’s driven shot before he committed the greatest miss of all.
It came in injury-time after a slaloming run by Jeremy Doku and a cross from Thorgan Hazard that flew over Dejan Lovren. All Lukaku had to do was force it over the line from a couple of yards out but he failed to do so with the ball bouncing off his midriff. His haunted look said it all.
And so it is Luka Modric’s Croatia and not Kevin de Bruyne’s Belgium who progress as the 2018 World Cup semi-finalists failed to beat the 2018 finalists.
Martinez’s contract takes him through to the end of Belgium’s involvement in this World Cup and while there had been an expectation that he would sign a new deal that will surely now be taken off the table.
Croatia will feel they deserved it and will feel they should have won, and won the group – instead it is Morocco - but had a penalty decision over-turned for the tightest of offside after English referee Anthony Taylor was urged to consult the pitchside monitor by German Var Marco Fritz.
Martinez has talked about legacy, about going close with this team and about remaining number one in Fifa rankings for three years – unfortunately there is no trophy for that – but it is unlikely to cut it. The subdued atmosphere inside the stadium betrayed the sense that something was coming to end.
Given the stakes it was a strangely pedestrian first-half illuminated by two moments of quality and a penalty that was given and then over-turned. Unsurprisingly Modric and De Bruyne were at the heart of the best moments. Within seconds of the kick-off there as a brilliant pass from Modric with the outside of his right boot to pick out Ivan Perisic who cut inside and whistled a shot narrowly wide.
Then, not to outdone, De Bruyne ran through, away from Modric, to slide a pass to Dries Mertens who should have scored but sidefooted wildly over.
And that was it apart from the penalty incident with Croatia earning the spot-kick when when Yannick Carrasco caught Andrej Kramaric. It was allowed to go all the way to Modric waiting to take his kick before Taylor went over to check the monitor.
It was claimed that Lovren’s shoulder was inches ahead of the last defender, Jan Vertonghen, in the build-up and to Croatia’s fury the decision was rescinded. It looked incredibly tight and appeared to come down to the so-called ‘T-shirt’ line of both players arms.
Lukaku’s header was easily gathered before, at the other end, Thibaut Courtois did well to push over Mateo Kovacic’s shot and, soon after, shovelling out another effort from Marcelo Brozovic before denying Modric.
Belgium looked set to capitalise when De Bruyne picked another wonderful pass to find Carrasco only for Josip Juranovic to superbly block his shot. Still the rebound ran to Lukaku who had to score but struck the post. It summed it up for Belgium.