Belgium and Croatia’s ageing star players are looking forward to one last tilt at World Cup glory in Qatar, but will have to get past a dangerous Morocco side and tournament debutants Canada just to reach the knockout phase.
Roberto Martinez’s Belgians are the Group F favourites, boasting a host of household names including Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
Croatia, runners-up at the last World Cup to France, will again be led in midfield by the evergreen Luka Modric as they hope to surpass expectations again.
But Belgium, who finished third in 2018, have questions hovering over their defence, with a combined age of 68 for centre-backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, both now playing club football back home.
There are also worries over key players in forward positions.
Captain Hazard has mustered just 11 starts for Real Madrid since the start of last season, while Lukaku has only made two substitute appearances since August due to a muscle problem.
“Is Eden Hazard still an important player for the national team? Yes, 100 percent,” Martinez told RTBF last month.
“I think his experience, the way he affects the opposition, the way he’s still beating players, he’s creating a real threat.
“For me it’s a profile that is one of the best in the world in terms of being able to play.”
The Red Devils remain in the lofty position of second in the FIFA rankings, though, behind only Brazil, and will be hopeful of finally ditching their tag of ‘nearly-men’ in recent championships.
Belgium have not failed to reach the quarter-finals of a major tournament since missing out on qualification for Euro 2012.
Canada will be Belgium’s first opponents on November 23 as the North Americans make only their second appearance in the tournament and first since 1986.
But any thoughts the Canadians will be pushovers are likely to be misplaced, after John Herdman led his young side to the finals as the winners of CONCACAF qualifying.
Englishman Herdman took Canada to the 2015 Women’s World Cup quarter-finals.
Their top scorer in qualifying was Cyle Larin, who plays for Belgian champions Club Brugge, while Bayern Munich wing-back Alphonso Davies has returned in good form after a Covid-related heart problem.
Can Croatia produce again?
Croatia enjoyed a wonderful four weeks in Russia four years ago, with a run to the final of which the highlights included a 3-0 thumping of Argentina and a dramatic extra-time victory over England in the semi-finals.
Zlatko Dalic had only taken the reins as coach during qualifying for that competition but remains at the helm.
His team arrive in Qatar fresh from reaching the Nations League finals, emerging as winners of a group which featured world champions France and Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark.
Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic have retired since the last World Cup, but 37-year-old captain Luka Modric, winger Ivan Perisic and midfielder Mateo Kovacic remain.
Morocco, Croatia’s first opponents, sacked coach Vahid Halilhodzic just three months before the tournament and appointed Walid Regragui.
Halilhodzic had controversially sidelined star players Noussair Mazraoui of Bayern and Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech before being dismissed.
Morocco impressed for large periods of their matches in 2018, as they returned to the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, but struggled in front of goal and finished bottom of their group.
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