Croatia reached the last 16 at the World Cup after a tension-filled 0-0 draw with Belgium on Thursday that ensured the last hurrah of the Belgian ‘golden generation’ ended in a dismal group-stage exit.
Roberto Martinez’s side, ranked second in the world and semi-finalists four years ago, needed a win at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium to keep their hopes alive but could not break down the Croats who finished as Group F runners up behind Morocco.
Substitute Romelu Lukaku fluffed four golden chances to break the deadlock as Belgium cast off the shackles in the second half, although Croatia had their own opportunities.
Croatia, who next play the winners of Group E, finished with five points, two behind Morocco who beat already-eliminated Canada 2-1 to top the table. Belgium were third with four points after winning just one of their three games.
A lot has been made of Belgium’s ‘golden generation’, a collection of prodigious talents from the biggest clubs, who have perennially been among the favourites at international tournaments for the best part of a decade.
Yet they have never tasted glory and with the brightest lights, such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, already north of 30, it is unlikely they will get another chance at the World Cup.
Morocco 2-1 Canada
An impassioned Moroccan team clinched a spot in the last 16 of the World Cup for the first time since 1986 by defeating the already-eliminated Canadians 2-1 on Thursday, mercilessly capitalising on their opponents’ blunders.
Morocco, who needed a win or a draw in their final Group F match to reach the knockout rounds, took advantage of a weak clearance by goalkeeper Milan Borjan that landed on the foot of Hakim Ziyech.
Cheered on by a boisterous crowd of Moroccan fans, midfielder Ziyech effortlessly lobbed the ball over the stranded goalkeeper to open scoring in the fourth minute.
Borjan had been placed in an unenviable position by central defender Steven Vitoria, whose weak back pass forced the goalkeeper to race Moroccan forward Youssef En-Nesyri to the ball.
En-Nesyri remained dangerous throughout the first half, doubling Morocco’s lead in the 23rd minute when he ran onto a long ball from Achraf Hakimi and beat Borjan at the near post.
En-Nesyri also thumped a volley into the Canadian net during stoppage time in the first half but that goal was ruled offside.
With Croatia drawing with Belgium 0-0 in the other Group F game, Morocco finish first in the group and will face the second-place finishers in Group E, which is made up of Japan, Spain, Germany and Costa Rica.
Argentina to meet Aus in last 16 clash; Poland qualifies
Lionel Messi missed a controversial first-half penalty for Argentina against Poland but his side recovered in time to register a 2-0 win, their second successive one and move into the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup as Group C winners. On Wednesday night at the 974 Stadium, one goal apiece from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez helped two-time champions Argentina to collect full points.
La Albiceleste scored both the goals in the second half to finish with six points, having started their campaign with a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in the Group C opener.
Argentina as group winners will take on Australia, which finished second in Group D. Poland with one win against Saudi Arabia and one loss, the same as Mexico, qualified on account of better goal difference over their Latin American opponent. Saudi Arabia finished at the bottom with three points for the lone win against Argentina.
Poland which finished behind the group leaders Argentina also qualified for the last 16 stage and will take on defending champions France.
S. Korea vs Portugal- 8:30 pm
Uruguay vs Ghana- 8:30 pm
Serbia vs Switzerland
12:30 am (Saturday)
Cameroon vs Brazil
12:30 am (Saturday)