‘We will not fool ourselves by their under-performance in the last two games’
Rumours of Belgium’s demise are greatly exaggerated, Croatia’s head coach Zlatko Dalic said as he prepares his side for Thursday’s decisive Group F showdown.
Croatia, who beat Belgium in the 2018 semi-finals, need just a point to guarantee progress to the last 16 while FIFA second-ranked side Belgium almost certainly need to win.
A shock 2-0 defeat by Morocco on Sunday was followed by talk of rifts in the Belgium camp, with playmaker Kevin de Bruyne and defender Jan Vertonghen reportedly at loggerheads.
De Bruyne was also reported to have said that Belgium’s so-called Golden Generation is now too old to win the World Cup, but Dalic was having none of it when asked on Wednesday.
“We are playing against the second-best football team in the world and they were number one,” he told reporters.
“They are a great team and if we could choose we would not have selected this match to be the decisive one.
“We will not fool ourselves by their under-performance in the last two games.”
Croatia drew with Tunisia in their opener but hit top form in a 4-1 defeat of Canada, leaving them in good shape going in to the clash at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
Dalic has ruled out any notion that Croatia would be happy to play for a draw.
“We will play as we did against Canada, high quality, high tempo. It’s going to be a difficult game,” he said.
“Belgium are a top team, they have De Bruyne and Hazard and we will not be fooled by media stories and some rumours. We are expecting the best of Belgium, a top-notch national team.
“They haven’t become a bad football players overnight. I am not focussed on any other aspects, we are just focussed on their strength and quality.”
Belgium have so far been without their powerhouse striker Romelu Lukaku but he is expected to be back on Thursday which could spell bad news for Croatia’s defence.
“We are preparing for him to start and that changes the Belgium game,” Dalic said. “He is great in the air and is a great attacker. But if we plan well we will have half our work done and the other half will be on the pitch.”
Lukaku’s former Chelsea team mate Mateo Kovacic had some simple advice for his team mates on how to deal with Lukaku.
“I will leave that to the coach but I will say ‘just don’t fight him.'”
‘We are not in crisis’, Belgium say ahead of Croatia clash
Belgium’s Timothy Castagne said the team was not in crisis after two lacklustre performances in the World Cup group stage that has prompted introspection ahead of a must-win match against Croatia to reach the knockout stage.
Ranked second in the world, Belgium prevailed 1-0 over Canada but were vastly outplayed, and suffered an embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Morocco in their subsequent Group F match.
“The first two games were not as good as we hoped. We didn’t show everything we are capable of,” Castagne said. “But we are not in crisis.”
Belgium will almost certainly have to beat Croatia on Thursday to advance to the last 16. A draw for Croatia will be enough to see them into the knockout, but Belgium will then be relying on Canada defeating Morocco by three goals to stand a chance to progress.
Belgian players have publicly admitted they were disappointed with their showing in Qatar and said that frank words had been exchanged amongst them at a team meeting following their loss to Morocco on Sunday.
The meeting sparked speculation of a rift on the team, which lost to eventual champions France in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup.
“It was important to get things off our chests and share our views,” Castagne said. “We also shared our ideas about how we can improve.”
Manager Roberto Martinez said pressure had gotten the best of his players after they finished third in 2018. He said they were now focused on enjoying their match and playing fearlessly against the 2018 runners-up.
“There was no enjoyment. There was too much responsibility,” Martinez said of his team’s first two matches. “Every player was fearful of losing. We are not expected to lose…Tomorrow there is no doubt. A draw and we are out.”
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