Lukaku squanders chances as Belgium go out
When it comes to hits and misses, there cannot be many more literal examples of the latter than Romelu Lukaku’s performance against Croatia. Coming on at half-time with Belgium in need of just one goal to progress, Lukaku missed four clear chances to score.
The second, a header, would not have counted. The cross had gone out of play. The third, a ricochet behind from close range, he could not have anticipated. But the first miss was big and those subsequent chances cannot have helped his confidence for the last one.
A post struck. An attempt to chest the ball down when he was so close with the goalkeeper beaten that it would have been easier to chest it into the net. These were bad misses for anyone at any time let alone a celebrated striker with World Cup hopes on the line.
It was cruel on Lukaku. He was devastated afterwards even as Thierry Henry tried to console him. In some respects, he should not have been put in this position, tasked with saving his country having played only half an hour of club football since August.
Belgium were so miserable at this tournament, so disjointed throughout, that it is impossible to imagine that these misses cost them any plausible shot at World Cup glory. Even so, that is unlikely to be much consolation for Lukaku after this game to forget.
Gvardiol guards Croatia with his life
There is an individual award for the Golden Boot winner, the Golden Glove and for the Player of the Tournament. But what about ‘Tackle of the Tournament’? Josko Gvardiol kept Croatia at the World Cup with the flick of his boot. It denied Romelu Lukaku a certain goal. It capped a magnificent performance from the masked defender.
At just 20 years old, he already looks the complete package and it was clear to see why Gvardiol has been heavily linked with a move to Chelsea among other clubs leading up to the World Cup.
Croatia midfielder Mateo Kovacic said afterwards: “He’s phenomenal, he’s 20 and he’s already fantastic. He can play at the highest level and he will only continue to get better. But I have no comments to make about links with Chelsea.”
Well, you can slap an extra £10m on the player’s valuation now. RB Leipzig will have seen Gvardiol’s development first hand but the Bundesliga outfit will struggle to retain his services for much longer if he keeps Croatia as compact and resolute as he did on Thursday evening.
A Rolls-Royce of a defender already, Gvardiol made nine clearances, eight ball recoveries and produced six key passes into the final third in addition to two tackles.
Croatia were unconvincing and must improve in the round of 16. Despite having a penalty ruled out by VAR due to an offside in the build-up – their threat was limited. But as Belgium’s ageing defence creaked, and Wout Faes remained unused throughout this tournament, Gvardiol showed why it pays to put faith in youth.
Ziyech is Morocco’s gem
Journey back a few months and Hakim Ziyech was not a name you would find among the Moroccan national team setup. The Chelsea forward had effectively retired himself from international duty, following discord with former coach Vahid Halilhodzic. But, having reinstated himself after a brief leave of absence, he’s back doing what he’s good at. There were even remnants of the pace and industry that tempted Chelsea into the transfer market back in 2020 – the Ajax Ziyech, if you will.
You could find the winger scampering downfield at the Al Thumama Stadium on Thursday, making a nuisance of himself by operating as the pinch point for Morocco, attracting fearful defenders to his mere presence. He caused untold problems for Canada’s disorganised backline, all while bringing others into play with clever movement, incisive passing and cheeky invention.
Morocco like to play on the front foot. It’s their style. It’s what their red-clad army of fans have demanded at this tournament. And Ziyech has been more than obliging, mercilessly capitalising on Milan Borjan’s blunder to give his side the upper hand with only four minutes on the clock against Canada.
In a twist of good fortune, a harried Borjan played the ball directly to the 29-year-old, who thanked the goalkeeper for the early Christmas gift by chipping the ball over his head into an empty net. Ziyech, incidentally, is just the third Moroccan to score and assist a goal in the same edition of a World Cup. It’s a far cry from his club form this season – Chelsea fans must be wondering where this version of Ziyech has been hiding.
Tinkering cost Canada; Davies not utilised
One of Canada’s defining characteristics during John Herdman’s time in charge has been their ability to adapt to the manager’s various tweaks of formation.
When it works, switching systems from game to game can help a side to punch above their weight by nullifying opponents’ strengths and exposing their weaknesses. Herdman guided Canada to their first World Cup in 36 years, so it’s hard to argue with the Englishman’s approach.
However, when the tinkering backfires, it can make a team look muddled – a description that could be levelled at Canada in Qatar.
Their three matches saw them line up in three different formations, while Alphonso Davies – undoubtedly the star of Canadian football – was handed three different starting positions and was regularly shifted around the field as Herdman made further in-game tweaks.
Davies regularly lines up at left-back for his club, Bayern Munich, but the touch map below shows how varied his usage was with Canada at the World Cup.
While it’s not uncommon for international sides to use players differently from how they are deployed at club level – Real Madrid defender David Alaba often plays in midfield or on the wing for Austria, for example – Canada didn’t seem to know how to get the best from Davies.
The 22-year-old played at wing-back, on both flanks in a 4-4-2 and as part of a front two, but Canada’s inability to make him the focal point of their game is shown by the fact he managed just one shot during the tournament.
It’s hard to be too harsh on Canada, given they outplayed Belgium in their opening game and took the lead in their second against Croatia.
But the way in which they slumped to defeat against Croatia and then failed to respond to Herdman’s changes against Morocco begged the question of how they would have performed with a more settled approach.