CROATIA 1 BELGIUM 2
AND so the golden generation have made good on their first promise. This remarkably talented Belgium squad have at last reached the World Cup finals - not since 2002 had they qualified - thanks to the on-loan Everton striker Romelu Lukaku's two first-half goals and a 2-1 victory in Croatia last night.
The result means Belgium are uncatchable as Group A leaders with 25 points from nine matches ahead of their last qualifying game at home to Wales on Tuesday, and ends a 12-year period during which they have also failed to reach the finals of the European Championship.
Lukaku, replacing the injured Christian Benteke, had several thousand visiting fans dancing on the half-empty terraces at the Maksimir Stadium after scoring in the 15th and 38th minutes, before second-half substitute Niko Kranjcar stole a late consolation goal for the home side.
"I'm just really happy for the team," Lukaku said. "We always believed we could qualify and now it's happened. We want to finish now on the right note against Wales."
Croatia have 17 points and are assured of a runners-up finish and a likely berth in next month's play-offs but were jeered by their fans after a lacklustre performance. The home team needed a win to have any chance of overhauling Belgium at the top but coach Igor Stimac deployed a conservative 4-5-1 formation with wingers Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic operating behind lone striker Mario Mandzukic. The visitors took the lead when Perisic gave the ball away to Steven Defour who then fed Lukaku; he raced clear of centre backs Vedran Corluka and Dejan Lovren before rounding keeper Stipe Pletikosa.
Pletikosa then kept out a close-range header from Marouane Fellaini but could not prevent Lukaku muscling through to score a dazzling second goal. Having superbly dinked the ball over Lovren inside his own half, the 20-year-old galloped past midfielder Mateo Kovacic, rounded the advancing Pletikosa and walked the ball into an empty net as bewildered home fans started leaving the ground in droves.
Belgium almost scored a third in the 77th minute when Pletikosa denied Fellaini from four yards after a darting run and cross by Hazard. Kranjcar pulled one back for Croatia by volleying a fierce shot into the roof of the net, after goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had parried a close-range effort by Nikola Kalinic and Daniel Van Buyten could only partially clear the rebound.