All good things must come to an end, and on Thursday, that’s the unfortunate but inevitable fate of Group F, undoubtedly the most interesting corner of this World Cup so far. In this game between Croatia and Belgium, the second- and third-place teams from the 2018 World Cup, qualification is on the line; either team still has a chance to top the group, or completely miss out on the knockout phase altogether, particularly if Morocco are able to take all three points from their matchup with Canada. Let’s take a look at the odds and make some picks for a match that is just as interesting as it is consequential to this group and tournament.
Belgium Vs. Croatia Odds
The odds are nearly even for this one; Belgium are extremely narrow favorites at +160, while Croatia fall just behind at +180 and the draw is set at +225. The goalscoring line is a tough call as well, with under 2.5 favored with a line of -130
Belgium Vs. Croatia Prediction & Pick
It’s been a wild ride for Belgium so far in this tournament. In what was dubbed the last chance for the “golden generation” that came in third at the last world cup but has never won a single trophy, they’ve started out by barely escaping what looked like it was becoming an absolute battering at the hands of heavy underdogs Canada, and then losing 2-0 to a less-heralded but very tough Morocco side. Still, their fate is still in their own hands; a victory against Croatia would mean certain qualification to the knockout round. Assuming striker Romelu Lukaku is relegated to a minor role, however, there’s still a huge question looming over this talented side; who exactly is going to score the goals?
Croatia’s start to the tournament can be described fairly similarly; they dropped points while being stymied by the Moroccan defense, and escaped an early scare from Canada, although they did the latter in much more convincing fashion than Belgium did. Another “golden generation” group that has soared to new heights for their country but not been champions, Croatia would also be extremely disappointed to see their tournament end early after a huge run in 2018. The only difference, however, is that while Belgium are likely going home if this one’s a draw, splitting the points would certainly send Croatia into the knockout phase.
To me, these picks are both pretty much no-brainers, but we’ll start with the easier of the two; the over. Belgium have been a bit more lethargic than usual, but they have a ton of talent; we now know Romelu Lukaku is apparently available after a short outing against Morocco, and Kevin de Bruyne still hasn’t produced a trademark moment, so that has to be coming. On the other side, Croatia’s attack woke up against a pretty tough Canadian team, as three different goalscorers contributed to the final tally; they’re getting into a groove at the right time. When it comes to the moneyline, it’s Belgium all the way; this team is going to come out on fire, as a tie is probably not enough to get them through and they know it. They’ll be fighting hard for the win, and you can expect Thibaut Courtois to shake off a poor performance in the net against Morocco and show the quality he always does in the biggest moments.
The Midfield Battle
As I’ve alluded to earlier, Croatia can draw this match and be guaranteed a spot in the knockout stage. I’m not saying they’ll park the bus, so to speak, but I am saying that controlling the ball is going to be a huge priority for them; if they’re able to do that effectively, they won’t have much of a need to get aggressive and try and make the big play. Luckily for them, the midfield is a big strength. The group is, of course, led by the legendary Luka Modric, who has been solid but not his 2018, tournament-running self so far. In the middle is Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic, with Chelsea man Mateo Kovacic on the left side. It’s a truly world-class group, but their strengths have not shown up all at once, so to speak. They dominated possession in the draw against Morocco, but weren’t able to generate quality chances. They remedied that particular issue against Canada, but still split possession evenly against the less-experienced side. I’d bet that in this one, they’d rather have a performance like the one against Morocco, where the ball is at their feet all day long; we’ll see how it turns out in what might be this veteran group’s last stand.
Belgium’s midfield is a bit hard to analyze. They employ the best midfielder in the World, in Man City’s engine Kevin De Bruyne, but he plays on the wing for them (which is a problem, but I’ll get to that). Their 3-4-2-1 formation also means that two of the players who are technically a part of the midfield are realistically fullbacks. That wrinkle is made even more complicated by the fact that this pair has been completely different in both games so far, with players that bring totally different qualities to the game, some closer to a traditional midfielder, some more like a fullback. Both times, the right back- Leicester’s Timothy Castagne against Canada and then Dortmund veteran Thomas Meunier vs. Morocco- has been more of a pure defender, while the player on the left- Atletico man Yannick Carrasco and then another Dortmund mainstay in Thorgan Hazard- has been more of a midfielder or even a winger. The duo of true central midfielders has also changed between the two matches, as Axel Witsel was on the pitch in both instances, but Youri Tielemans was replaced by another Prem product, Amadou Onana. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but there’s plenty of talent; if manager Roberto Martínez is able to press the right buttons, they can certainly contend with Croatia’s vaunted midfield group.
Belgium Attack vs. Croatia Defense
While Croatia may be content to sit back, Belgium is going to want to strike early and often to secure their qualification. I think we have to assume that Lukaku will continue to be on the bench, although a stint longer than the 10 + stoppage time he played against Morocco could be a serious game-changer for his side if it comes down to it. Kevin De Bruyne has been far from his usual level of influence while playing the unnatural position of right wing- even he has no clue how he was named man of the match against Canada, and the floor really fell out from beneath him as he struggled in the Morocco clash. Eden Hazard is patently past his peak, and Michy Batshuayi had that one lovely strike against Canada, but has been pretty nonexistent during the rest of his time on the pitch. It was a little strange to see Leandro Trossard as the only attacking sub brought on late against Canada, although they were in the lead. Belgium opened up the war chest a bit more during the desperate moments against Croatia, as Dries Mertens, Charles De Ketelaere and of course Lukaku all saw the field, but I’m still puzzled as to why this sleeping giant of an offense hasn’t gotten a boost in the form of Jérémy Doku, who dazzled at the Euro but hasn’t touched the turf yet in this tournament. Whoever it may be, someone or a few someones in attack will need to step up in order for Belgium to survive and advance through this one.
They’ll be going up against a Croatia defense that has some talent for sure, but might find themselves relatively hanging on for dear life against what should be a desperate and very inspired Belgian effort. The back four has been the same in both matches so far; veteran centre-back Dejan Lovren, primarily of Liverpool fame but now representing Zenit St. Petersburg at the club level, has been paired with the extremely promising youngster Josko Gvardiol, a versatile rising star who can also defend the outside of the pitch. Josip Juranovic and Borna Sosa are the less-lauded fullback duo, but the relatively young pair has put in very strong performances against relentless wing opposition so far, and Juranovic even provided a nice assist for Marko Livaja’s huge go-ahead goal just before halftime against Canada. This group will have their hands full against a Belgium attack sporting more talent than they’ve seen so far, but if they stay steady and play together they could be up to the challenge.