Croatia only need a draw to advance to the knockout stage of the World Cup 2022
After defeat last time out, Belgium must win this match to qualify for the last 16
This could be an absorbing affair between the two European national teams
The odds for Croatia vs Belgium have been taken from the FanDuel sportsbook, which offers punters a generous $1000 no-sweat first bet.
For a country of under four million people, Croatia are one of soccer’s foremost overachievers. Reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup 1998 was seen as an unsurpassable achievement both inside and outside the country, but Croatia managed to go one better four years ago. A 4-2 defeat by France did not diminish the incredible feat of reaching a World Cup final.
Croatia will struggle to replicate that accomplishment in Qatar, but they will at least fancy their chances of reaching the knockout phase. With four points from a possible six to their name, Zlatko Dalic’s side only need a draw on Thursday to progress. A win would almost certainly see them through as the winners of Group F.
In truth, Croatia were uninspiring in their opening game of the tournament, a 0-0 draw with Morocco that was arguably the dullest match of World Cup 2022 so far. Although their technical quality was clear for all to see, Dalic’s men looked labored and ponderous with the ball. Their build-up play was too slow and it was easy for Morocco to frustrate them.
When Canada then scored in the second minute of their meeting on matchday two, some Croatian supporters may have feared the worst. But the runners-up at Russia 2018 came roaring back, running rings around the CONCACAF representatives and taking full advantage of their tactical naivety.
Croatia played some fantastic soccer in their 4-1 win. There are few better midfield trios in Qatar than theirs, combined of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, and Marcelo Brozovic. Those players gave Croatia the platform to ease past John Herdman’s charges. They will now look to do the same against Belgium as Group F reaches its conclusion.
The World Cup has not gone well for Belgium (at 11.6 million people, another relatively small nation) so far. The Red Devils finished third four years ago, knocking out Brazil along the way. But most members of the golden generation that graced that tournament are not the force they once were.
Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium’s only outfielder who is still at the top of his game, admitted before the kick-off that he was concerned about the age of the team. He was right to be.
Belgium have looked old and tired so far. They were hassled and harried by Canada from the first whistle of their opening match. Roberto Martinez’s men won 1-0 but they were extremely fortunate to pick up all three points. A Canada win would have been a more accurate reflection of the match.
Things got worse for Belgium on matchday two. Short of ideas in the attack against Morocco, their defensive deficiencies were exploited in the closing stages as the Atlas Lions scored twice to leave Belgium on the brink of an early exit. Only a win will do here, otherwise, the Red Devils will be on their way home before the start of next week.
There is still enough quality within their squad for Belgium to pull a result out of the bag in a one-off game. But even if they do get the job done on Thursday, it is hard to see Martinez’s side going much further than the round of 16.
The likes of Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld, Axel Witsel, and Jan Vertonghen are still on the team, but it is clear that they are all past their best. Whether they beat Croatia or lose to them, we will probably see a rebuilding process begin immediately after this tournament.
Romelu Lukaku appeared off the bench in the defeat by Morocco and he is likely to be included in the starting XI here. The Inter striker might not be fully fit yet - he has played only four games in Serie A in an injury-hit campaign - but needs a must for Belgium.
Even a Lukaku that is not at his sharpest would be preferable to Michy Batshuayi up front. The 29-year-old scored against Canada but his link-up play has been poor and he does not offer enough in general play. Lukaku is not the most all-around center-forward either, but he has a much better goal record.
Croatia, for their part, will fancy their chances of exploiting an aging Belgium backline. They turned on the style against Canada and will be in a confident mood ahead of this decisive game in Group F. Andrej Kramaric still has his doubters but he finished well last time out, scoring twice in the 4-1 win.
If either side takes the lead, the other will need to score. Meanwhile, 0-0 would not be good enough for Belgium, who must win. That means one team will always be chasing a goal, which increases the chances of an entertaining affair. Back goals in both halves at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
Teams: Croatia vs Belgium
Location: Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar
Time: Thursday, 1 December 2022, 10:00 AM EST
How to Watch: Fox Sports, Telemundo, fuboTV
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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