Who: Belgium vs Croatia, Group F
Where: Al-Rayyan Stadium
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When: Thursday, December 1, at 6pm (15:00 GMT)
FIFA ranking: Belgium (2), Croatia (12)
Speculation over Belgium’s demise is greatly exaggerated, Croatia’s head coach Zlatko Dalic said ahead of Thursday’s decisive showdown between the two Group F sides.
“We are playing against the second-best football team in the world and they were number one,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
Indeed, the Red Devils, as Belgium are known, are currently ranked behind only Brazil by FIFA. But while Dalic knows his team can’t take them lightly, Belgium stand on the precipice of a shock World Cup exit as they head into Thursday’s match.
Belgium’s opening game against Canada saw them outplayed for large parts of the 90 minutes, and they were lucky to escape with three points after some wayward finishing from the opposition.
They were further humbled in their second match when a rampant Morocco defeated them with two second-half goals. Belgium’s flat performance led Kevin de Bruyne to say his team, which came third at the 2018 World Cup, is “too old” to achieve World Cup success this year.
Later, reports emerged that there had been a dressing room argument between De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and veteran defender Jan Vertonghen. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has since dismissed these reports as “invented stories”.
What’s definitely real is the risk of elimination the Belgians face as they take on Croatia, who have enjoyed a better start to the World Cup.
Both teams reached the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, with Croatia beating England 2-1 in extra time and Belgium narrowly losing to eventual winners France 1-0.
Belgium, who head into the final group stage match with only three points, must win to guarantee qualification. A draw would suffice only if Canada beat Morocco by a margin of four goals in their Group F game, which will be played at the same time.
Croatia have a simpler route to the Round of 16. A draw would guarantee qualification. But Dalic ruled out any notion that his team would be happy to play for a draw.
“We will play as we did against Canada, high quality, high tempo. It’s going to be a difficult game,” he said.
Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku, who has been struggling with a thigh injury, could start for Belgium after coming on as a substitute against Canada. Defensive midfielder Amadou Onana is suspended after receiving two yellow cards in the first two games and will likely be replaced by Youri Tielemans.
Despite the team’s struggles so far, Belgian defender Timothy Castagne dismissed suggestions that the side was in trouble.
“The first two games were not as good as we hoped. We didn’t show everything we are capable of,” Castagne said. “But we are not in crisis.”
It’s unclear whether Ivan Perisic, the Tottenham Hotspur winger who claimed two assists against Canada, will be able to start for Croatia after being hurt. He might be replaced by Dinamo Zagreb’s Mislav Orsic.
The game between the top-ranked sides of Group F was always going to be a tough contest. As one of the final matches of a still-undecided group, it is now a decisive contest that could crush dreams or lift hopes.