The opening half of the match between Croatia and Belgium featured precisely the kind of football that one would anticipate from 22 players who averaged 30 years and 142 days old, making them the second oldest combined line-up at a World Cup.
Belgium starting XI age
Each side was happy to battle it out in the center of the field over the opening 45 minutes of the match, which resulted to a controlled and intelligent performance from both squads. After an early goal scored by Hakim Ziyech in the other game in Group F, the pressure was on for Belgium to score, as they were aware that they needed a victory. On the other hand, it seemed as if Belgium was conserving their energy for a push later in the game, but Croatia was more than happy to contribute to a controlled game, secure in the knowledge that a draw would do them just fine.
In the event that we are not behind schedule, then it was a laborious and slow process. There are a variety of other descriptors available.
In the beginning, there weren’t many opportunities available at all, regardless of how you look at it. Kevin De Bruyne, who virtually seemed to be Belgium’s only chance of producing anything, took advantage of a rare period of transition and surged forward through the middle in the 13th minute. This allowed Belgium to go closer to the goal. He set up Dries Mertens with a chance to score, but the former Napoli attacker missed the finish while making his first start for Belgium in any tournament since the summer of 2017.
The greatest “opportunity” that Croatia had was in fact not a chance at all. Yannick Carrasco was unable to properly manage a loose ball in his own penalty area, and as he dove to clear it, he made contact with Andrej Kramari’s boot. Anthony Taylor indicated the location with his finger. However, Luka Modric was not awarded a penalty despite being in a position to do so against his teammate Thibaut Courtois of Real Madrid. Courtois was not penalized because of a questionable offside ruling made during the buildup.
Neither team was able to get a shot on goal throughout the first half of the match. It was just the second game of the tournament to fail in that respect, the first being the sleepy match between Japan and Costa Rica earlier in the competition.
In the opening five minutes of the second half, there was more activity than there was in the whole of the first half. Romelu Lukaku, who had replaced Mertens at the break, was the player who eventually registered the game’s first shot on target. It took him the whole three minutes to do it. Mateo Kovai, Marcelo Brozovi, and Modri all had opportunities to score for Croatia, but Courtois was able to save all three shots. They were secure saves, but an air of excitement was beginning to permeate the atmosphere.
At the hour mark, there was the first significant event. Again, the deciding factor was De Bruyne, who was the one to receive the ball on the half-turn in between the lines. He then played Carrasco, whose opportunity was stopped, but the rebound went out to Lukaku, who somehow managed to hit the post from six yards out. After that, the Inter player nodded over to his teammate from practically the exact same spot on the field a few seconds later. Rust? Nerves? Who could possibly know?
Lukaku would find himself in the middle of the action, but for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately for him.
Two more golden chances came his way, and each of them were golden. Each time, the striker Lukaku did not really anticipate that the ball would come to him, and as a result, the ball struck him in a way that was quite uncomfortable. The attacker has only played 31 minutes of football in Italy this season, and who knows what may have transpired had he come into this competition in peak physical and mental condition.
His five shots had an expected goals value of 1.7, and they were all successful. It was a particularly gruesome way to end the concert.
Lukaku shot map vs. Croatia
De Bruyne attempted in vain. Although he produced three opportunities for the team, which was the most of anybody else on the field, he still felt that the game was always getting away from him. Only fifty times did he make contact with the ball. When he has participated in the whole of a game for Manchester City this season, he has not scored lower than a 52.
The fact of the matter is that Belgium’s offensive third performance throughout this tournament has been much too lackluster. They only managed to score one goal throughout all three of their games, and their shooting conversion rate of only 2.9% was the lowest of any side that managed to score a goal during the tournament. The Red Devils were just unable to convert passing movements into scoring opportunities, despite the fact that they had more possession than their opponents did on a per-game basis in all three contests. In this competition, Belgium had 37 different passing moves that were 10 or more passes long. Only five percent of the time were they able to convert such movements into a shot or a touch inside the opponent’s box. That’s a record low for the tournament.
When discussing this squad, it’s difficult to get beyond the narrative that centers on their ages, but there’s a good reason for it. After Australia in 2010, this lineup was the second oldest starting XI to compete in a World Cup match in this century, with an average age of 31 years and 95 days (31y, 118d vs. Germany).
Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Axel Witsel, and Kevin de Bruyne are the five players that began for Belgium in their last World Cup game in 2014, and they are the same five players who started today’s game for Belgium. During the same match, Lukaku and Mertens were both substituted into the game.
To put that into perspective, just three members of England’s complete team from 2014 are now in Qatar.
Today was Thibaut Courtois’s 100th appearance for his country. He is the sixth player overall to accomplish that milestone, following in the footsteps of Vertonghen, Witsel, Alderweireld, Eden Hazard, and Mertens. Lukaku was the last player to do so. Today’s roster included those other names as well as others. In the year 2026, how many will there be?
It would be unjust to argue that they hobbled through after their performance on Matchday 2, but Croatia is getting it through to the final 16 despite not constantly motivating its opponents. They will face the winner of Group F, which is most likely going to be Spain. They are going to be the underdogs in that, but there is still a possibility that the Modri swansong may continue.