Croatia knows how to deliver when it matters most. Finalists four years ago, this group are battle-hardened in knockout football, this game to close out Group F – a lose and go home match one round early – playing right into their hands. In what would be a heated contest with much to gain and everything to lose, they needed cool heads. Fortunately for them, they had the three coolest in the stadium.
Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic have seen it all in the colors of their national team, veterans and star turns of this gilded run of a golden group of players. Croatia saw off Denmark, Russia and England, all via extra time, to reach the final in Russia back in 2018. They know how to win in these moments. Crucially for this one here, they also know how not to lose.
Safe in the knowledge that a point would secure progress to the last 16, a performance of calmness and control among the chaos was desperately required. And the three safest hands of all helped deliver it with Spain now the most likely of rewards.
Brozovic was central to it all. So often the third of the big three in the Croatian engine room, he has led the way here in Qatar, directing traffic and setting the tempo for all that his team has done well. His 98 touches comfortably led the way against Belgium, the most of any midfielder by far, his team turning to him time and again to reset and reload. Require an out ball? Brozovic. Want a safe option? Brozovic. Need someone to win the ball back and play it forward too? Brozovic.
With such a constant alongside, Modric could afford to roam, floating and flitting among the lines as he has so long and so famously done to find space and put his side on the front foot. Winner of the Golden Ball four years ago as the tournament’s best player, the legs don’t quite carry him as they once used to now, but the mind still ticks, always calculating and assessing, constantly pondering and planning the next move.
Kovacic often moved as the most offensive of the trio here, pressing forward out of possession of the ball and physically moving the team forward with it, with the efficiency and elegance he always does. He would come as close as any one of his side to breaking the deadlock too, the first of all three of them to test Thibaut Courtois with shots in the space of five second-half minutes as Croatia turned up the dial.
Set against them, Belgium’s opposite numbers were a pale shadow, failing to lay a glove or any part of their anatomy on them from minute one to 90, their time at this tournament – and in all likelihood their place at this level for some time – over.
Roberto Martinez has struggled with many facets of this underperforming group at this tournament, but no more so than with his own midfield composition, the most talented player on either team here, Kevin De Bruyne, again a passenger as he has so often been. No outfield player who started and finished the game touched the ball less.
With no platform to work from, all the things that De Bruyne does so well are redundant. Just as Youri Tielemans and Amadou Onana had against Canada and Morocco, Leander Dendoncker failed to help ensure any kind of transition, any reliable method of progressing through the thirds, two old ends of an old team once again tied together by so little. Axel Witsel, the only constant amid Martinez’s many rolls of the dice, was anonymous once more, the combative, energetic midfielder of old – one of so many among this group – seemingly irreparably worn down and weakened by the passage of time.
With the goal they so needed never coming, they would slump to the turf as their exit was confirmed. De Bruyne, with nothing left to give, was the last man standing as this side bowed out once and for all – a golden generation without any gold.
This Belgium’s journey, in so many ways, is at an end. Croatia’s, inspired by the men at the very heart of it, goes on.