Following on from a professional yet underwhelming Wales win, Belgium faced a sterner test at home to perennial tournament qualifiers and 9th in the world Croatia. Some had already marked this down as the most important game of the group, if not Belgium’s for a decade.
The 40,000-strong expectant crowd piled into the King Baudouin Stadium with high hopes and provided the adequate backdrop for the Rode Duivels to strut their stuff. Except nobody told them the game had started. After a frenetic five minute period, Croatia broke down the right exposing the advanced Jan Vertonghen. A stumble from Vincent Kompany allowed the unmarked Ivan Perisic time to slot home an early opener for Igor Stimac’s side. The former Club Brugge man finished well although it was down to some suspect defending.
For the remaining 40 minutes of the half, the onus was Belgium’s entirely yet Stimac’s well-drilled banks of four restricted Belgium to fleeting chances. Vertonghen, buoyant on the back of his goal vs Wales, again pushed forward and provided good support to the attack, but detrimentally left the backline exposed when Croatia countered.
The biggest chances of the opening 45 minute fell to Aston Villa’s new signing Christian Benteke, who spurned several opportunities. In such a big game, it could be said he was trying too hard. He found the space but consistently made the wrong decision when called upon. Eden Hazard had his moments but drifted and was outshone by Dries Mertens who made a nuisance yet again.
It looked like Croatia had dealt with everything Belgium threw at them in the first half, although the Rode Duivels looked devoid of ideas at times. But just before the interval the resolve broke through an unlikely outlet. A deep corner eventually fell to Guillaume Gillet who took a speculative shot from 30 yards like he did at Wembley. Except this time, his audacious effort hit the back of the net and got the right-back his first goal for the national team. It spared Wilmots’s angry half-time team-talk at least as Belgium went in level at the break.
Whatever Wilmots said at half-time looked to have worked. Axel Witsel almost played Benteke in but his shot was cleared off the line. The quiet Courtois was brought into action after Defour sold him short, suggesting that Croatia were still a threat on the break.
Bow-tie wearing Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo watched a disjointed second half that certainly went Belgium’s way, although clear-cut chances were at a premium as the game became incredibly tetchy and littered with fouls. Croatia had the best chance to seal an unlikely win at the death as Domagoj Vida found himself clear a yard out. Like Benteke, he messed up his opportunity.
A draw is probably a reflection of the strength of both teams and a closely fought contest. Marc Wilmots will be disappointed once more that Belgium didn’t create more clear cut opportunities. Sharing the points isn’t a bad result so early in the group though. Belgium’s next game is a daunting trip to Serbia in October, where we should get a clear indication of where the national team is at, with the three fancied teams for the group level on four points each.
Belgium (4-1-4-1)- Courtois, Gillet, Kompany (c), Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Defour (Fellaini 67′), Witsel, Dembele (De Bruyne 72′), Mertens (Mirallas 81′), Hazard, Benteke
Manager – Marc Wilmots
Croatia (4-4-2) - Pletikosa, Vida, Schildenfeld, Simunic, Strinic, Srna (c), Modric, Radosevic (Vukojevic 78′), Perisic , Jelavic (Olic 59′), Mandzukic (Kalinic 88′)
Manager – Igor Stimac
Referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP)