By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | December 02, 2022

Batman Josko Gvardiol

Batman Josko Gvardiol: That’s what the central defender can be nicknamed after Croatia emerged unscathed in their must-win tie for Belgium in Group F. A draw would suffice for Croatia at the Al Rayyan Stadium to make it to the round of 16. 

From the 86th minute onwards, Belgium pressed on even harder looking for a goal. One minute 40 seconds into extra time, Gavardiol curls his left foot even as he goes sliding past Romelu Lukaku (who is within smooching distance) to hook the ball out of the marauding striker’s reach. A millisecond late and Croatia would have been knocked out! The goalless draw was enough!

Croatia defeats Belgium
Croatia defeats Belgium: Gvardiol (left) with Borna Sosa. Pic Courtesy: josko_gvardiol/Instagram

Playing with a mask after a nasty collision with a team-mate during Leipzig’s 3-1 win over Freiburg a few weeks before the World Cup, Gavardiol kept pressing up the left flank time and again to bolster the mid-field and attacking line. This gave Ivan Perisic the liberty to keep floating to the right flank and Croatia, who went in with an unchanged team, had plenty of options upfront.

Nightmare at Al Rayyan for Lukaku

Nightmare on Lukaku must have had a sleepless night. He saw all his attempts either thwarted by Dominik Livakovic and the defenders hit the upright or sail over the crossbar. It was not Lukaku’s night.

In at halftime for Dries Mertens, Lukaku immediately made the difference for Belgium and the coming in of Jeremy Doku for Yannick Carrasco in the 70th minute meant the Croatian defenders had their hands full. But they stood up to the challenge with Luka Modric marshalling his resources well from the midfield, tirelessly running around and chipping in precise crosses.

Croatia defeats Belgium
Croatia defeats Belgium: It was just not the Belgian striker’s night. Pic Courtesy: romelulukaku/Instagram.

In the 86th minute, Lukaku (positioned in front of the goalmouth) had no time to react to a precise cross coming in from Doku. A Few seconds earlier Thomas Meunier had made way for Eden Hazard. Three minutes later Hazard’s cross to Lukaku, feebly attempted, sees Livakovic dive back just in time before the ball could cross over. 

Three other chances were thrown away by the Belgian. You don’t blow away opportunities like this at the biggest stage in World Football. Three minutes into the second half, Lukaku headed feebly to Livakovic. In the 59th minute, Livakovic saves a volley from Carrasco which rebounds to an unmarked Lukaku. An open goal, with no defenders, and the big striker hits the right upright. Two minutes later, his header of a Kevin De Bruyne cross sails over the crossbar. It is a sad night for Lukaku, an iffy starter at this World Cup with a thigh injury. Croatia defeats Belgium.

Croatia attack, refuse to crack

Croatia on the other hand began with an attack on the Belgian goal in the 14th second itself with Ivan Perisic tearing in on the left flank and letting out a powerful volley that went screaming past Thibaut Courtois and the goalpost. Croatia for the most part had to draw back as Belgium, making four changes, kept up the attack.

On the counter, Croatia managed to stretch the defense, but the crowding tactic employed by Roberto Martinez’s men meant that the backline, always crowded, was difficult to breach. Croatia threw everything into the defence. Borna Sosa, Dejan Lovren, Josip Juranovic, and Gavardiol ensured that their wall was fortified, too. Mid-fielders Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic kept dropping back when required and running upfront to open up chances. Sosa, like Gavardiol, kept darting up to trouble the Belgian defence. Along with Modric, he created opportunities for the Croatian forwards. But at most times, there was none to capitalise on it. 

Apart from the Lukaku misses, Belgium had a few other near misses. Fortunately for them, a penalty in the 14th minute was overruled by VAR. Carrasco had fouled Kramaric off a corner. It was a relief for Belgium and despair for Croatia as Modric had to trudge back from the penalty spot.

Martinez vs Dalić 

While Martinez affected all 5 substitutions, Zlatko Dalić made just three preferring to bolster the forward line with Bruno Petkovic and Mario Pasalic for Kramaric and Livaja and getting in Lovro Majer (attacking midfielder) for Kovacic to tighten the defence, minutes before the long whistle.

For Belgium Lukaku came in for Martens, Thorgan Hazard for Leandro Trossard, Jeremy Doku for Yannick Carrasco, Youri Tielemans for Leander Dendoncker, and Eden Hazard for Thomas Meunier.

It was a draining match just like in Russia 2018 when Croatia survived the host country on penalties (4-3) in the quarterfinals after a full-time score of 2-2. Perisic too had done a Lukaku then with his volley hitting the left upright!

If Croatia has to make a dent in the opposition and move ahead convincingly, they will have to play the game they played against Canada. Use both wings, float in the passes and ensure there are enough players in the box to intercept opportunities. Japan, will be tough opposition. They knocked out Germany with their win over Spain.

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Cover Pic courtesy: Borna Sosa/Instagram

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