Who: Belgium vs Croatia, Group F
Where: Al-Rayyan Stadium
When: Thursday, December 1 at 6:00 PM (3:00 PM GMT)
FIFA Ranking: Belgium (2), Croatia (12)
Speculations about Belgium’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, Croatian head coach Zlatko Dalic said ahead of Thursday’s decisive clash 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.
In fact, the Red Devils, as Belgium is called, are currently behind only Brazil, according to FIFA. But while Dalic knows his team cannot take them lightly, Belgium are on the precipice of a shock World Cup elimination as they head into Thursday’s game.
In Belgium’s opening match against Canada, they were outplayed for large parts of the 90 minutes, and were lucky enough to escape with three points after a wayward finish from the opposition.
They were further humiliated in their second match as a rampant Morocco defeated them by two goals in the second half. Belgium’s weak performance led Kevin de Bruyne to say his team, which finished 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 row between De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and experienced defender Jan Vertonghen. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has since dismissed these reports as “trumped up stories”.
What is certainly real is the risk of elimination the Belgians face when they take on Croatia, who have enjoyed a better start to the World Cup.
Croatia played a restrained goalless draw against Morocco in their opening game, but shot four past Canada in their second game.
Both teams reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, with Croatia beating England 2-1 in extra time and Belgium narrowly losing to eventual winners France 1-0.
Belgium, entering the final group stage with just three points, must win to guarantee qualification. A draw would only suffice if Canada defeated Morocco by a four-goal margin in their Group F match, which is being played at the same time.
Croatia has an easier route to the Round of 16. A draw would guarantee qualification. But Dalic ruled out any thought that his team would be happy to play for a draw.
“We will play like we did against Canada, high quality, high pace. It’s going to be a tough game,” he said.
Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku, who is struggling with a thigh injury, could start for Belgium after his substitute against Canada. Defensive midfielder Amadou Onana is suspended after two yellow cards in the first two games and is likely to be replaced by Youri Tielemans.
Despite the team’s struggles to date, Belgian defender Timothy Castagne dismissed suggestions that the side was in trouble.
“The first two games were not as good as we had hoped. We haven’t shown everything we are capable of,” said Castagne. “But we are not in a crisis.”
It is unclear whether Ivan Perisic, the Tottenham Hotspur striker who provided two assists against Canada, will be able to start for Croatia after an injury. He may be replaced by Dinamo Zagreb’s Mislav Orsic.
The match between the best teams in Group F was always going to be a tough one. As one of the last matches of a still undecided group, it is now a decisive match that can shatter dreams or spark hope.