Both sides are packed with experience, and some of the greatest players in their nations’ history. But where Croatia have refreshed their defence, Belgium’s aging legs are unlikely to last the distance in the heat of Qatar.
On the surface, these two European heavyweights battling to avoid elimination from Group F are remarkably similar. Both are small nations with proud footballing traditions. Neither has won a major trophy, though both have come agonisingly close. Belgium were runners-up to West Germany at the European Championships in 1980, while Croatia lost the last World Cup final to France. Both have reached the semifinals of the World Cup on two occasions.
Croatia and Belgium can also point to generational talents in their playing XIs. Luka Modric, still controlling games for Real Madrid and his national team at the age of 37, has competition only from Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban for the title of Croatia’s greatest footballer, while Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne would feature in any discussions regarding the best that Belgium has produced.
But heading into their winner-takes-all clash at the Al-Rayyan Stadium, what’s noticeable is how differently the two sides have approached this tournament. Belgium, whose coach Roberto Martinez and senior players have been forced to deny rumours of rifts within the team, put their faith in experience and the core that have served them well for so long, while Croatia refreshed their XI with some new faces. The experienced spine remains, but the defence in particular has younger legs to cope with the Middle Eastern heat.
Croatia’s starting XI came into this tournament with a staggering 667 caps. Four players had more than 75 caps, led by Modric on 155, and two others were closing in on the milestone. But on the flip side, with the exception of Dejan Lovren, none of the back four had won more than 25 caps. Josko Gvardiol and Borna Sosa had just 20 between them.
The average age of the team was 29, with five starters on the wrong side of 30. Given the hectic schedule and the heat, it’s reasonable enough to wonder if Croatia would last the distance. Then, you look at the Belgium side that started in the loss to Morocco. At first glance, what catches the eye is the even greater experience, an astounding 887 caps between them.
The average age is 29.9, not noticeably higher than Croatia. But when you take out the 21 year old Amadou Onana, who had won just two caps before the World Cup began, you get a very different picture. Seven of the XI are over 30, and another two are 29 years old. The aging legs are a particular concern in defence, where Timothy Castagne at 26 is the only one under 31.
Jan Vertonghen is 35, and Toby Alderweireld is 33. Both played for Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final in 2019. It’s a sign of how much their standards have dropped since then that both are back playing in Belgium’s Jupiter League. It’s telling that the 24 year old Wout Faes, who has made a superb start to his Premier League stint with Leicester City, hasn’t been trusted with a single game.
Much of the talk from the Belgium camp in the days leading up to this game has centred on comments de Bruyne made over a month ago in an interview with the Guardian newspaper. “I think our chance was 2018,” he said with the candour that has been his calling card even since he came to prominence. “We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018. I see us more as outsiders.”
That is nothing but fact, but reports suggest that de Bruyne’s words were enough to spark a dressing-room altercation with Vertonghen after the Morocco defeat. Martinez spoke of conspiracy theories undermining the team, but he hasn’t covered himself in glory with his selections either.
In his seven seasons at Chelsea, Eden Hazard was easily one of the world’s most accomplished attacking players. But his move to Real Madrid in the summer of 2019 has been an unmitigated disaster, with just 7 goals in 72 outings. Thorgen, his younger brother, hasn’t done much better, with just goal from 21 games for Borussia Dortmund this season.
Yet, both continue to be selected ahead of the younger Leandro Trossard, whose seven goals from 14 Premier League matches for Brighton this season included a brilliant hat-trick at Anfield, against a Liverpool team that have reached three of the last five Champions League finals.
If Martinez ignores form and goes by reputation again before the Croatia game – Romelu Lukaku isn’t fully fit, while Loic Openda has scored 7 from 15 matches for Lens in Ligue 1 this season – then Belgium’s golden generation will be buried under the weight of the rust they’ve carried.
Zlatko Dalic, who has coached the Croatian side since 2017, has the 100-cap Domagoj Vida on his bench, but the decision to start Gvardiol has been a key factor in the renaissance that has already taken Croatia to the final stage of the Nations League. In the cut-throat world of professional sport, loyalty can be an admirable thing. Martinez’s reluctance to cut legends adrift perhaps stems from that, but he has no option now if yet another Belgian campaign isn’t to end with a whimper.