Groups E and F in the 2022 Qatar World Cup concluded after a dramatic day which saw two of the biggest names in the tournament crash out.
Group F produce the first major casualty of the World Cup so far, in terms of a well fancied team going home early. Belgium had finished third in Russia four years ago, and were the number two rated team in the world according to the FIFA rankings on the eve of the tournament.
But they also had won of the oldest squads in Qatar, and there was a sense of age catching up with their so-called “Golden Generation.”
They had undeservedly beaten the Canadians in their first group match and then were well-beaten by Morocco in their second.
That led to reports of disharmony in their squad before their must win final game against Croatia and, when the Croatians were awarded an early penalty the situation threated to become worse, only for the decision to be reversed after the intervention of VAR.
With them needing a goal to keep their hopes alive, Belgium introduced Romelu Lukaku off the bench and immediately looked more threatening. The striker had a number of half chances and hit the post, but the goal would not come,
At the final whistle their players slumped to the floor in disbelief, many of them in tears. Immediately afterwards manager Roberto Martinez quit his job.
Despite that point, it was not enough for Croatia to top the group and they had to settle for second placed behind Morocco who beat Croatia 2 – 1 in the other game.
The North Africans were given an early lead when the Canadian keeper came racing out of his goal only to present the ball to Hakim Ziyech who calmly lobbed him from 30 yards. When they added a second midway through the first half, they were in complete control of proceedings.
An own goal, though, shortly before half-time, gave Canada a way back into the match. It was the 100th goal scored in the Qatar World Cup this year.
With nothing left to lose Canada threw everything in their search for an equaliser, but the closest they came was when Atiba Hutchinson, on as a substitute and making his 100th appearance, crashed his header against the bar.
At the end, Morocco could celebrate their first appearance in the round of 16 since 1986.
In the end Group F proved just a foretaste of the dramas to come in Group E, which began with the final set of games with all four teams. Spain , Germany, Japan, and Costa Rica in with a chance of qualifying.
When both the Germans and Spain both took an early lead in their games against Costa Rica and Spain respectively, all seemed to be going according to plan from a European perspective, even if neither side could add to their lead before half-time.
Events though were completely turned on their heads when Japan scored twice in three minutes at the start of the second half, although there was a high degree of controversy about their second goal. When Ritsu Doan pulled back the ball for Ao Tanaka to tap home, the ball seemed to have been out of play first.
After a lengthy VAR check it was decided that the whole circumference of the ball had not crossed the line, although still images suggest that the call can best be described as marginal.
However, those goals meant that Germany were now heading out, and it got worse for them when Costa Rica equalised. Improbably the Latin Americans then took the lead, which meant that Spain were also heading out.
Germany, though, rallied and scored three more times, but they were still reliant on Spain equalising against Japan to progress and the goal just would not come.
In the end Japan had won their game with less possession than any other in the history of World Cup games.
It was also the only the second time in World Cup history than a team had completed more than 700 passes in a game and still finished on the losing side. And the first had come just last week, when Germany lost to Japan.
Germany had failed to qualify from the group stages for the second successive tournament, having previously made it to the knock-out stages in every World Cup dating back to 1954. Inquests as to what went wrong for them in Qatar have already begun.
What happens next
Japan will now play Croatia in the round of 16 on Monday, 5th December, whilst the following day Spain will meet Morocco.
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