Lukaku misses send Belgium's 'olden generation' out after short but tumultuous tournament

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It made sense Roberto Martinez should seek to play down reports of a Belgium rift on the eve of a huge World Cup match against Croatia, knowing how precious opportunities to direct this superstar cast might prove going forward.

This week's "fake news" was the work of a "genius" in the French media, suggested Martinez.

Timothy Castagne insisted a meeting within the squad – "it wasn't a crisis meeting," he added – had made matters "a lot better" after the Morocco defeat that left the Red Devils on the brink of elimination in Group F.

Unfortunately for Martinez, for Castagne and for Belgium, Wednesday's pre-match news conference was not the only exposure the public had to their team.

Those outside press rooms in France had likewise noted Kevin De Bruyne's increasing irritation with his team-mates' performances through two matches, while he openly discussed his frustration at their inability to achieve "the perfection I strive for".

That was possibly even one of De Bruyne's more forgiving assessments, also describing Belgium as "too old" as their ageing defence creaked. In turn, centre-back Jan Vertonghen considered their forwards "also too old".

Romelu Lukaku had been required to intervene in the dressing room, claimed one report. Several key players were not on speaking terms, added another.

When Castagne said he had "seen worse" as Belgium finished fourth at the 2021 Nations League Finals, it was not the glowing endorsement of the group he perhaps thought it was. This clearly was not a happy camp.

Martinez's solution on Thursday was not a particularly obvious one; nor was it an effective one as an improbable goalless draw confirmed an early flight home.

In need of inspiration, captain Eden Hazard had come out in one of four changes that included a recall for the 35-year-old Dries Mertens. The World Cup's oldest team got older.

In terms of average age, this was the second-oldest World Cup starting XI of the 21st century.

Croatia themselves are no spring chickens, and as if to mock Belgium, Luka Modric – the oldest player on the pitch – promptly set about pulling the strings. He agreed with Castagne, it seemed, that "age isn't always a factor".

Just 10 seconds had elapsed when Modric's pass in behind to Ivan Perisic preyed on the lack of pace in the Belgium back-line, although the winger shot wide.

In a sign of their new-found unity, Belgium had gathered – both starters and substitutes – for a pre-match huddle only moments earlier, and there were still flashes going forward of the talent everybody knows them to possess. De Bruyne and Mertens were quick enough to tear through the middle of the pitch, only for the veteran attacker to fire off target.

With Morocco swiftly in front against Canada, confirming the Red Devils would have to win to advance, Belgium looked certain to be put out of their misery when Yannick Carrasco fouled Andrej Kramaric to apparently concede a penalty. A VAR review revealed an offside by an almost illegible margin to come to their rescue.

The half-time introduction of Lukaku in place of Mertens lifted spirits, and a string of Thibaut Courtois saves kept Belgium in the game long enough for the substitute to have five big chances to win it.

But an early header was sent straight at Dominik Livakovic, who was merely a spectator as Lukaku crashed a later rebound against the post. When he then nodded over an open goal, it appeared the ball had at least gone out of play prior to De Bruyne's cross to provide a crumb of comfort. Three minutes from the end, the Inter striker stabbed wastefully wide, and there was still time for him to chest into Livakovic's arms from on the goal-line.

Lukaku is the youngest of Belgium's seven 100-cap men at 29, a leader, a peacemaker and still a highly effective goalscorer when fit. However, repeated injury issues would suggest an impact in 2026 is unlikely.

As with Belgium's old men in defence and attack, this looked to be a tournament too far for a half-fit forward unable to lift his country one last time.

Martinez had been adamant on Wednesday "this generation is the golden generation of Belgian football", but he could point only to a bronze medal as evidence – and whatever the fallout, this side will not now improve on that haul.