Not much room for youth in Croatia vs Belgium at World Cup

Nov 29, 2022, 1:49 PM | Updated: Nov 30, 2022, 5:58 am
Belgium's Amadou Onana falls during the World Cup group F soccer match between Belgium and Morocco,...

Belgium's Amadou Onana falls during the World Cup group F soccer match between Belgium and Morocco, at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

(AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

              Belgium's Amadou Onana falls during the World Cup group F soccer match between Belgium and Morocco, at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
            
              Belgium's Charles De Ketelaere, right, speaks with his teammate Wout Faes prior to the start of the World Cup group F soccer match between Belgium and Morocco, at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
            
              Croatia forward Andrej Kramaric (9) celebrates with defender Josko Gvardiol (20) after scoring against Canada during the first half of the group F World Cup soccer match at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
            
              Croatia's Nikola Vlasic, left, and Morocco's Youssef En-Nesyri challenge for the ball during the World Cup group F soccer match between Morocco and Croatia at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

DOHA , Qatar (AP) — When Belgium’s “Golden Generation” meets Croatia’s accomplished veterans in a decisive World Cup match on Thursday, there won’t be much room on the field for younger players.

Croatia, which reached the final four years ago, and Belgium, which finished third in 2018, each rely on a vast array of experienced players.

Croatia’s 20-year-old Josko Gvardiol and 25-year-old Nikola Vlasic, plus Belgium’s 21-year-old Charles De Ketelaere, are some of the exceptions — with Belgium’s 21-year-old midfielder Amadou Onana suspended for the game after picking up two yellow cards.

Nicknamed “Little Pep” because of the similarities between his last name and that of Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola, the physical Gvardiol has already become a fixture at center back for Croatia and Leipzig, which recently extended his contract to 2027.

Despite the contract extension, Gvardiol has been linked with a possible to transfer to Chelsea, where he could join Croatia teammate Mateo Kovacic.

“At the age of 20 he has demonstrated that he can play at a great level,” Kovacic said. “He just needs to continue doing that.”

Nikola Vlasic, the younger brother of former high jump world champion Blanka Vlasic, usually plays as an attacking midfielder. But on a Croatia team featuring the likes of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Kovacic in midfield, Vlasic is used as a winger.

Statistically one of best midfielders in Serie A this season with Torino, where he is on loan from West Ham, Vlasic is often involved in the buildup to goals and also puts a lot of shots on target.

Vlasic exited Croatia’s opening 0-0 draw with Morocco at halftime after picking up a knock, but returned as a substitute in a 4-1 win over Canada.

“Everyone thinks about the three midfielders, and rightly so, but this team now carries even more threat,” Belgium coach Roberto Martínez said of Croatia.

“(Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic) highlights new players that are coming in around those three players.”

Belgium also relies on a veteran attacking core of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku — who hasn’t been 100% physically — in attack, meaning that the baby-faced De Ketelaere, or “CDK” as he’s referred to, has only played off the bench so far at this tournament.

But De Ketelaere impressed upon his arrival at Italian champion AC Milan in August, drawing comparisons to former Rossoneri standout Kaká for his dribbling ability and precise crosses in the playmaker position.

“Some of the young players that haven’t been in the game, they are growing behind the scenes. I can feel that they can be called on when needed,” Martínez said. “I thought the players that came on against Morocco, they did their jobs, they performed well.”

Croatia can secure a round-of-16 spot with either a win or a draw, while Belgium needs to win to be sure of advancing.

Croatia and Morocco lead Group F with four points each, Belgium has three points and Canada has zero and is already eliminated.

If Canada beats Morocco, it’s possible that both Croatia and Belgium will advance.

“It’s very difficult to go into the game looking just for a point — that’s not our mentality,” Vlasic said. “We need to go for a win because if you just look for a point, you concede a goal and you are in panic mode all of a sudden. So we are going for the win.”

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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Not much room for youth in Croatia vs Belgium at World Cup