Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic produced another Croatian penalty shoot-out masterclass, and was delighted to have followed in the footsteps of his predecessors.

Livakovic saved three penalties as Croatia triumphed 3-1 on spot-kicks after a 1-1 draw against Japan at Al Janoub Stadium to progress to a quarter-final against either Brazil or South Korea.

His efforts mirrored that of Danijel Subasic, who also made three saves when Croatia edged past Denmark at the same stage four years ago in Russia.

"It's what we do in Croatia," Livakovic said. "You could see that four years ago. I continue the tradition of my predecessors and I put it down to the analysis we do of the penalty takers."

Croatia were second best in the first half and trailed at the break to Daizen Maeda's close-range strike. Ivan Perisic dragged his side level with a wonderful header 10 minutes into the second half with extra time failing to separate two determined but limited sides.

"It's important to win, but it's always easier to resolve the game in 90 minutes because penalties are risky," added Livakovic, who attempted to play down his heroics.

"This time the penalties worked well for us. I don't think they were difficult ones to save. We did an analysis prior to this match."

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic praised his modest goalkeeper, although his heroics came as no surprise.

"We have a fantastic goalkeeper, he was unbeatable," said Dalic. "When we started the shoot-out, I was very confident. He was great in training yesterday and I had no doubt he would demonstrate that again today.

"We had made several substitutions and didn't have the likes of [Luka] Modric, [Mateo] Kovacic and Perisic on the field but all our problems were resolved by Livakovic.

"He proved to be like Subasic in Russia, history keeps repeating itself."

Croatia have a fine record at the World Cup, finishing third in 1998 and runners-up in 2018. The squad from Russia has largely broken up and Dalic called on today's players to make their own mark.

"This generation is resilient, they don't give up," he said. "They reflect the spirit of the Croatian people. We have been through so much pain that the Croatian national team is now a source of pride.

"We had a great generation in 2018, but we now have 18 new players and I told them that this is their chance to make history."

Defeat ended a remarkable run for Japan that saw them beat Germany and Spain. A first World Cup quarter-final appearance eluded them, though.

Coach Hajime Moriyasu was full of admiration for his players and denied they had wilted under the pressure.

I don't think so, no," he said. "Their goalkeeper was great and the Japanese players that took the penalties were very courageous.

"We obviously wanted to win, but it does not negate the efforts of the players. I think Japanese football can continue to grow.

"We cannot do everything at once, we cannot become superheroes in one go, we need to improve little by little, but Japan is reaching a level where we can play on the world stage."

Dominik Livakovic became Croatia's latest penalty hero as they again survived a World Cup shoot-out on Monday, beating Japan 3-1 from the spot after a turgid 1-1 draw at Al Janoub Stadium.

Goalkeeper Livakovic saved spot-kicks from Takumi Minamino, Kaoru Mitoma and Maya Yoshida to send Croatia through to the quarter-finals.

Danijel Subasic had likewise kept out three penalties in a last-16 shoot-out during a run to the final in Russia four years ago, with Croatia now having won each of their three World Cup knockout ties that have gone all the way.

The result was a little harsh on Japan, who had led through Daizen Maeda before Ivan Perisic equalised, although neither side impressed ahead of a meeting with either Brazil or South Korea in the next round.

An entertaining start was not an indicator of what was to come. Shogo Taniguchi headed wide at one end and Perisic was denied at the other, but there was not another clear-cut chance until the opener two minutes before half-time.

Ritsu Doan's cross following a short corner reached the centre of the area, where Maya Yoshida's attempt at a shot succeeded instead in teeing up Maeda for a close-range finish.

Croatia had not looked like crafting a goal of their own, but they were level 10 minutes after the restart when Perisic met Dejan Lovren's delivery with a superb header into the bottom-right corner.

Although Ante Budimir soon nodded off target, opportunities remained scarce and Lovro Majer dragged wide with the final kick of extra time to condemn the tie to penalties.

Livakovic kept out Japan's first two attempts, with his save from Mitoma particularly impressive, and Croatia could ease through even with Marko Livaja clipping a dreadful effort against the post.

Zlatko Dalic stressed that staying disciplined will be crucial if Croatia are to defeat Japan and reach the World Cup quarter-finals.

Croatia, runners-up in Group F behind Morocco, face Japan on Monday in the last 16.

Japan were the shock victors of Group E in Qatar, having claimed 2-1 victories over Germany and Spain either side of a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica.

Runners-up to France in 2018, Croatia have only lost two of their eight knockout stage games at the World Cup (W4 D2), while Japan have never progressed beyond the last 16.

Hajime Moriyasu's team have shown their quality against top sides, however, and Dalic knows his team must stay regimented if they are to avoid an upset.

"Spain might have thought it was going to be easier, but Japan are a team that do not quit, as they showed against Germany as well," Dalic told reporters.

"At some point, when Costa Rica were leading against Germany, Spain were out of the tournament, so they couldn't allow themselves to lose. Japan deserved to win.

"Before the group stage, if we could choose an opponent in the next round, some people may have said Japan, but after seeing them beat Germany and Spain, they are anything but an easier opponent.

"If you are first in a group with Germany and Spain, it shows your quality and that you are playing at a really high level. What I would say about the Japanese team is that they never quit. They conceded goals at the beginning of the match both against Germany and Spain, but they came back.

"They had a lot of faith in themselves, and that is a great virtue of the Japan national team. For us, it will be key that we are also disciplined and patient. We cannot make mistakes, because Japan has the quality to punish those mistakes. We need to be good at falling back if we lose the ball."

Croatia might have progressed from a group that also included Belgium and Canada, but failed to score in two of their matches – they had only drawn a blank in two of 13 matches at the tournament in the 2006, 2014 and 2018 editions combined.

Dalic's side like to control possession, but that could play into Japan's hands. They averaged just 32.3 per cent of the ball across their three group stage games. Indeed, their two wins over Spain and Germany came with 17.7 per cent and 26.1 per cent possession respectively, while the one match they lost came when they had more of the ball against Costa Rica (56.8 per cent).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Japan – Ritsu Doan

Three of Japan's four goals scored have been scored by substitutes. Ritsu Doan has netted two of these. 

Only three players have ever scored at least three goals as a substitute at a single World Cup – Andre Schurrle in 2014 (three), Roger Milla in 1990 (four), and Laszlo Kiss in 1982 (three).

Croatia – Ivan Perisic

Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric run the midfield for Croatia, but their attack is not quite as world-class.

That being said, in Ivan Perisic they have a wide player more than capable of chipping in. The 33-year-old has scored nine goals at major tournaments, which is a joint record for Croatia along with Davor Suker.

Perisic has also set up seven goals at either the Euros or the World Cup, a national record, and no Croatia player has had more shots so far in Qatar than his tally of five.

PREDICTION

This will be the third World Cup meeting between Japan and Croatia, with Japan winless and goalless in the previous two – a 1-0 defeat in 1998 and a goalless draw in 2006, both in the group stage. 

Opta's model says the odds are against Japan, who are given a 26 per cent chance of progressing to the last eight. Croatia are the favourites (46.1 per cent).

Do not be surprised to see this one go to extra-time, though – the draw is ranked at a 27.9 per cent chance.

Yuto Nagatomo wants his Japan team-mates to "fight like samurais" when they face Croatia in the last 16 of the World Cup.

Japan shocked many by winning Group E in Qatar, beating former world champions Germany and Spain to do so.

The Samurai Blue were eliminated in the 2018 tournament by Belgium in the round of 16, losing 3-2 after taking a two-goal lead.

Four years on and Nagatomo, who played in that game in Rostov, thinks the challenge of getting over that blow will only strengthen what he calls the "strongest" Japan team in World Cup history.

"Of course I've never forgotten [the Belgium loss]," Nagatomo told reporters. "It always remained with me, sometimes suddenly I remember things from that game.

"The last four years have been very tough for me, my thoughts were always on the Qatar World Cup, but we overcame those challenging four years and I think we grew mentally and physically.

"Since 2008, I've been participating about 15 years in the World Cup process, but as far as I can see, this team is the strongest in the history of Japan's participation in the World Cup.

"We intend to beat Croatia and enjoy a new landscape and I'm looking forward to shouting 'bravo' out loud."

Hajime Moriyasu's side showed spirit in their wins against Germany and Spain, coming from a goal down to beat both 2-1, and Nagatomo revealed where some of their belief may have come from.

"Before the Germany game, there is a word in Italian, 'couragio', which means 'courage', so I shook hands with each player and we said 'couragio' together," the former Inter man said.

"I think all the players are manifesting this 'couragio' play, sometimes on the field or on the bench, but the atmosphere on the bench is also very good. I can really feel we are united as one and this is Japan's strength. I think we are the most united team at this World Cup.

"I don't need to say 'couragio' anymore, they are passionate enough and I'm sure we're going to show the world very passionate play tomorrow. We will win.

"I mentioned before that we use the analogy of the samurai, before they go to battle they polish their weapons, improve their techniques, but if they are scared during the battle, they will not be able to use them properly. It's the same with football.

"Of course, tactics are important, but no matter how much we improve those, if we are scared on the field, those things are useless. In order for us to maximise all the tactics we've been talking about in the last four years, the first thing we need is courage. Tomorrow, we want to showcase how courageously we are fighting."

When asked to elaborate on his samurai point, Nagatomo said: "Yes, I am the one who of course talks about the samurais very often. In the world, the Japanese samurais are very famous, so we'd like to fight like samurais. I think this is a great opportunity to show how we can fight as the samurai."

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic also alluded to the "samurai philosophy", but insisted his players will be ready, having played a part in eliminating Japan's 2018 tormentors Belgium in the group stage.

"What I find to be of utmost importance is to demonstrate respect for opponents," Dalic said. "They beat two World Cup winners, they showed their mental strength and quality.

"What I said to my players [is] 'never underestimate'. They will bring samurai philosophy in their game, we'll do our part. We know what they are, who they are, their mentality. We must apply the same attitude. We must do our best and never underestimate, show maximum respect and we'll see who is the best team."

Josko Gvardiol insists he is happy at RB Leipzig but would not rule out the possibility of a future move to Chelsea.

The 20-year-old was the subject of intense speculation at the start of the season, with Chelsea said to have had a £77million (€90m) offer rejected.

Gvardiol subsequently signed a new contract at Leipzig and has continued to impress.

But talk about a transfer has never gone away, and the centre-back discussed the possibility after starring for Croatia against Belgium at the World Cup.

"You know what happened in the last few months," he said. "To be honest, I have no idea. My agent is taking care of this, and we will see.

"Right now, I'm happy in Leipzig. We will see. You never know.

"We know the stories, but all I can see is that I'm happy in Leipzig. Right now, I'm going to stay there."

Asked for his opinion on Chelsea, Gvardiol replied: "It's a big club. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll be there.

"It's really nice to see things like this, especially because there is [Mateo] Kovacic. You should ask him [if he wants me there]. Just talk with him."

Gvardiol was described as "the best stopper in the world" by Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic on Thursday, with the defender relishing the global stage.

"Of course it is [good for my career]," he said. "To be here at this biggest event, it's a big thing for me at 20 years old. I'm happy."

Zlatko Dalic was sorry to see Belgium lose a "great coach" in Roberto Martinez as his departure was confirmed with Thursday's World Cup exit.

Dalic's Croatia held Belgium to a goalless draw at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, following Morocco through to the last 16 in Group F.

Martinez, who was out of contract after six years as Red Devils coach, announced he would be leaving his role in his post-match news conference.

"I think Belgium have lost a great coach," said Dalic. "I'm sorry he resigned."

Discussing his own future, the Croatia boss added: "My project is Euro 2024 and the Nations League Finals. When I finish these projects, then I'll think about how to proceed."

Although the 2018 finalists themselves missed out on topping the group, Dalic hailed the performance of his team.

"It would be selfish for me to single out individuals," he said. "They all gave everything of themselves."

Full-backs Josip Juranovic and Borna Sosa were more open to picking out individuals, each lauding 37-year-old player of the match Luka Modric.

Asked if the Real Madrid man was still one of the world's best, Juranovic replied: "Yes – [that answer] is short enough. He is the best midfielder ever."

Sosa added: "Of course, it's easy [to play with Modric]. The better players you have in your team, the easier it is to play.

"With Luka, one of the best players in the history of the sport, it is very easy."

Departing Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez revealed his "huge disappointment" after the Red Devils crashed out of the World Cup.

The world's second-ranked side suffered a surprise elimination in Qatar after finishing third in Group F following a goalless draw with Croatia.

It brought the curtain down on a poor tournament for 2018 semi-finalists Belgium, who struggled past Canada in their opening game before suffering a shock defeat by eventual group winners Morocco.

The Croatia stalemate also spelt the end for Martinez, who confirmed his departure as Belgium head coach after six years in the role.

"We were ourselves today," he reflected. "We had very good performances and frustrated Croatia in the first half, but couldn't take chances in the second half.

"We got in very good positions, but didn't execute them well. Second half, we looked strong and probably created more clear-cut chances than in 2018.

"We showed heart, and we saw a group that really cares, which we missed in previous two games - we weren't ourselves [in the first two games].

"Due to quality and experience, we won the first game [against Canada], but we were not ourselves. Today was completely different.

"Morocco was disappointing, and we're out of the World Cup because margins are small - there's no margin for error. Morocco took their chances and Croatia now rightly progress through. It's a huge disappointment for us."

Martinez also explained his reasons for Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, who was only introduced in the 87th minute at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, starting Belgium's must-win showdown on the bench.

It came after a tumultuous week, in which he dismissed reports of a rift within the camp as "fake news" at his pre-match news conference.

"Lukaku couldn't play the 90. We saw in the second half, he lacked physicality," Martinez said. 

"We used him where there were bigger gaps and got him in the box. He moved well and got in good positions, but missed chances.

"I'm happy with the way we planned for this game. The players that started gave us what we wanted, and then we could have scored three goals in second half, and it would have been a different story.

"We were here for seven games and couldn't take a risk on players, it would not have been responsible to play [Lukaku] from the start, same with Eden Hazard."

Much of the discussion surrounding Belgium's underwhelming campaign in Qatar has focused on the ageing of a so-called 'golden generation' of players, with Kevin De Bruyne stating the Red Devils' squad was "too old" ahead of the finals.

Defender Toby Alderweireld insisted the senior players within the squad are yet to make a decision on their futures.

"I think as a team, you have to take the responsibility," he added. "I think we played a very good game. We could have won.

"I think we lost the qualification in the last game against Morocco. If we didn't lose this game, it was a total different game. This is the reality. It hurts.

"It's not every year that there's a tournament. We'll see what everyone is doing, but I think it's too close to the last game to decide.

"Everyone goes home now, goes to their club and decides what they're going to do. This hurts, it's normal, but decisions are not made after the game."

Roberto Martinez confirmed he has taken charge of Belgium for the final time following their World Cup exit, but he does not believe this is the end for the country's 'golden generation'.

Belgium finished third in Group F after toiling to a 0-0 draw with second-placed Croatia at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Thursday, ensuring they failed to qualify from a World Cup group for the first time since 1998.

Martinez – who led Belgium to their best World Cup finish when they claimed bronze in Russia four years ago – was under contract until the end of the tournament, and has revealed he planned to walk away however the Red Devils fared.

"That was my last game for the national team and it was emotional. I can't carry on, sorry," a visibly moved Martinez said at his post-match press conference.

"This was the end, whether we won or went out in the group. It has nothing to do with being eliminated at this stage.

"I'm someone who likes to build things. For six years, I've been here with the objective to reach the World Cup and win it. We won the bronze medal in 2018 and gave it another go. It's been a real joy. 

"We've built a legacy. I know people will see it a different way, but I'm so proud. Looking at the dressing room now, we have youngsters who can now be starters. 

"It's been six amazing years that we've been able to do everything you want to do with a club at a national team. 

"I've loved the way this team has played and given everyone incredible joy. The fans in Belgium have appreciated this. It's now time for me to accept this is the last game.

"I've always wanted to be loyal and finish the job. I'm not resigning, it's the end of my contract. This was always the plan."

Much of the discussion surrounding Belgium's underwhelming campaign in Qatar has focused on the ageing of a so-called 'golden generation' of players, with Kevin De Bruyne stating the Red Devils' squad was "too old" to win the World Cup before the tournament began.

However, Martinez does not believe Belgium's best days are behind them, highlighting the way his team's achievements could inspire the country's next generation. 

"You see players like Youri Tielemans, players like Amadou Onana and Jeremy Doku," Martinez told BBC Sport. "The golden generation is doing something that is bringing the next generation on.

"It's not necessarily what names are on the pitch, the legacy can be left in many ways.

"Today, we are out of a big tournament, and now the standards need to carry on rising, the young players need to carry on this line.

"We wanted to get through, but I'm sure the other national teams wanted to get through too. That's a tournament, and you are in the best tournament in the world. 

"In the previous one [in 2018], we won all three group games and it wasn't in enough go all the way. For me, it's the same feeling. Today, it was a way of losing that you can accept."

In a statement issued by the Belgian Football Association, CEO Peter Bossaert hailed Martinez for creating an "immense legacy" for future generations in the national side.

"With his team Roberto left an immense legacy for the next Belgian football generations," he said.

"Not only by introducing a modern structure on analysis, education and scouting but also by initiating the preparation for the next step in the careers of the players aiming to become a coach. But also his contribution to the expansion of the brand-new and state-of-the-art Football centre in Tubize was huge.

"Last but not least we thank him for the familiar atmosphere he brought into our house and for being a great ambassador for Belgian football. The full staff of the RBFA will miss him a lot. We wish Roberto Martínez the best of luck for the future.”

Belgium were eliminated from the World Cup in the group stage after drawing 0-0 with Croatia at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Thursday.

Morocco's 2-1 victory over Canada elsewhere in Group F meant Belgium had to win to advance to the last 16, while Croatia needed to avoid defeat.

A low-quality first half, in which the only talking point was an overturned Croatia penalty, made way for a far more gripping second period.

Romelu Lukaku was brought on at half-time and squandered a few big chances, though ultimately the match finished goalless as Belgium suffered a shock early exit. 

Belgium were given an early reprieve when a penalty awarded for Yannick Carrasco's challenge on Andrej Kramaric was overturned for offside against Dejan Lovren in the build-up as Luka Modric was lining up to take it.

The arrival of Lukaku coincided with the game finally coming to life, the Inter striker forcing Dominik Livakovic into the first save of the contest a little over three minutes after coming on.

That in turn sparked Croatia into life and Thibaut Courtois – on his 100th cap – made three saves in the space of four minutes to deny midfield trio Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric.

Lukaku then hit the post with plenty of the net to aim for after Carrasco's blocked shot fell nicely in his path, before heading over from close range with the goal again gaping – though VAR may have intervened even if he had scored.

The biggest miss was still to come as Lukaku failed to help the ball over the line from a couple of yards when Thorgan Hazard's cross was missed by Lovren, meaning elimination for Belgium and a second-place finish behind Morocco for Croatia.

Romelu Lukaku remained on the bench for Belgium's game against Croatia and was joined there by Red Devils captain Eden Hazard.

Belgium have endured a tumultuous week ahead of a World Cup match they almost certainly must win in order to advance from Group F.

Reports of a rift within the camp were dismissed as "fake news" by Roberto Martinez at his pre-match news conference.

In the same media briefing, Martinez said Lukaku – who returned from injury as a substitute in the defeat to Morocco – was "ready".

However, he added: "Now we have to see how much he can play."

The answer, it appears, was not enough to start, with Lukaku again left out of the XI and finding company on the bench in the form of skipper Hazard.

Michy Batshuayi, Lukaku's deputy, also made way as four changes saw an apparent move to a 3-4-3 formation.

Dries Mertens looked set to lead the line, supported by Yannick Carrasco and Leandro Trossard.

Croatia were unchanged after beating Canada 4-1 in their previous match to take control of the group heading into matchday three.

Belgium have lost form at a terrible time at the World Cup, with their place in the last 16 at risk against Croatia, but Eden Hazard still believes in their quality.

The Red Devils were out of sorts in beating Canada 1-0 and were duly punished in their second match against Morocco, losing 2-0.

That defeat ended a 13-game unbeaten run in group-stage games at the finals, although they have not lost consecutive such matches since a sequence of three in a row across the 1982 and 1986 tournaments.

Another reverse against Croatia – who impressed in crushing Canada – would see them eliminated, while a draw may not be enough either.

"We have to do better, we cannot deliver the performance we want [right now]," said captain Hazard, who also skippered Belgium to the semi-finals four years ago.

"We have to show it on the pitch, that is what counts. We still have quality in the group and are here to win.

"We lack confidence because of that last pass and that last dribble. We have to regain that confidence."

That lack of confidence is particularly evident in the final third, with Belgium netting with just one of 19 shots. That conversion rate of 5.3 per cent is their lowest at a finals since converting only three of 93 attempts in 1982 (3.2 per cent).

Concerningly, Croatia have had no such issues of late, with their four goals against Canada tying their World Cup record for a single match (also vs Cameroon in 2014).

The 2018 finalists have also won four of their past five group-stage matches, drawing the other, and their only defeats to fellow European nations in 10 World Cup meetings have been to France – in both 1998 and 2018.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Croatia – Andrej Kramaric

Kramaric was in inspired form against Canada, scoring twice before being substituted 17 minutes from time when he surely would have backed himself for a hat-trick. It was only the second World Cup brace by a Croatia player (also Mario Mandzukic vs Cameroon in 2014).

Belgium – Romelu Lukaku

Lukaku has appeared for only nine minutes as a substitute so far at this tournament, but it is surely time for Belgium to turn to their main man. He has scored all three of the Red Devils' goals across their past two meetings with Croatia – both of which they have won.

PREDICTION

This is one of the most finely balanced matches of the tournament so far, according to the supercomputer. While Belgium are marginal favourites, given a 37.2 per cent chance of winning, Croatia are just behind on 36.5 per cent.

Does that make a draw most likely? That result, which suits Croatia far better than Belgium, is rated at 26.3 per cent.

Roberto Martinez insists this is Belgium's "golden generation" and does not see any similarities with England's flops of the mid-2000s.

This group of Belgium players has long been lauded, but the Red Devils' best performance of recent years saw them finish only third at the 2018 World Cup.

As pressure builds on the side at the 2022 finals, where there have been reports of veteran stars quarrelling, coach Martinez has come to their defence.

He sought to highlight the contributions of Belgium's leading men off the pitch, as well as on it, and suggested the England team given the same label under Sven-Goran Eriksson were not comparable.

"It's interesting, because when I arrived in 2016, there was talk of a 'golden generation'," Martinez said on Wednesday.

"Clearly we were not the golden generation. The golden generation of Belgian football was 1986 in Mexico. They were the ones who arrived into the semi-finals.

"Since then, these players showed incredible commitment to the national team. We're talking about players who left Belgium very young, they went into the best dressing rooms in European football, they win trophies, and they're always committed.

"We have eight players with over 100 caps; we have Thibaut Courtois reaching his 100th cap against Croatia. You've got players who gave their career for the national team.

"This generation is the golden generation of Belgian football, there is no doubt.

"They got the bronze medal in 2018, they kept the national team for four years at the number one spot in the world rankings, a population of 11,000,000.

"Twenty-one of them got their A [coaching] licences. This generation is going to carry on impacting Belgian football from a coaching point of view for the next 20 years.

"They were able to build a new training facility, state of the art, that is going to change Belgian football for the next generations.

"What you can say is this generation haven't won a major tournament. But leaving a legacy goes a lot further than winning a tournament. I'm sure you can find national teams who win tournaments and they don't leave a legacy.

"This group of players deserve respect, deserve admiration for what they've done.

"From here, we can win, draw, lose, but with the legacy of this generation, I am the proudest person because I've been able to work with them, to see day to day how much they care.

"The next 20 years in Belgian football will not be the same because of this generation.

"You cannot compare it to England. England was a group of players that were sensational, outstanding at a group level, and they never found the way to do that with the international team. Comparisons are totally, totally impossible."

Roberto Martinez has blasted the Belgian media for coverage of a "genius" French-based report detailing supposed unrest in the Belgium camp ahead of a huge World Cup match against Croatia.

Belgium lost 2-0 to Morocco in their second Group F game and must now defeat the 2018 finalists to be sure of advancing to the knockout stage.

The Red Devils' preparation for that fixture has been hampered this week by discussion of a rift within the team, first reported by RTL and L'Equipe.

Belgium's players subsequently came together for a meeting – "it wasn't a crisis meeting, as we might have heard from some quarters," insisted Timothy Castagne – as they aim to "show more solidarity" against Croatia.

Castagne added the reports had "exaggerated a lot" and he had "seen worse", before Martinez, appearing after the defender at a pre-match news conference, suggested his team now knew they were in Qatar "on our own".

"For us, nothing changes. The standards come from within," the coach said.

"We were not happy with our two performances. We got the result in the first game, but we were not happy with our performance.

"The second game was the first time we lost a game by two goals in a major tournament. You can imagine we were not happy with it. We had to react.

"Then you see the storm on the outside and realise maybe we were listening too much to the noise on the outside before the tournament.

"You have some outlets in Belgium who are quite happy to jump on fake news. That's quite astonishing. It's made the group quite aware that the least you listen to the noise from outside the better.

"It's the biggest sporting event in the world, and you can see there are many World Cups being played. Maybe a country like France did a very good job with a story that became the main talking point of some outlets.

"There is more desire to find negative news around this team, rather than getting the nation together, supporting this team, enjoying the talent of the best generation we ever had in Belgian football.

"Probably that was a lesson for all of us: we are here on our own. We are here to fight for what we believe. Hopefully the fans, the real fans of the Red Devils, can enjoy the process."

Pressed on his suggestion the story had come out of France and been intended to hurt Belgium, Martinez replied: "I've got too many things to do in camp to think about where this story comes.

"What is clear is whoever came up with it, whoever has done it has scored a great goal, an own goal for Belgium.

"If I'm an opposition and I can weaken another side and get them out of the World Cup, I would do that as a journalist, I would love to win my own World Cup. Whoever's done it is genius."

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said his side would not be "fooled" by the reports around the Belgium team, adding: "I don't have an opinion on them and what's happening there.

"They are the second-best team in the world. That's all I care about. We are not focusing on any other aspects. We are focusing on Belgium, their quality.

"They cannot forget overnight how to play football. They are a top-notch team. They're number two, and we're number 12."

Thibaut Courtois insists "too many lies are spread" as the Belgium goalkeeper dismissed reports of a rift in the Red Devils' camp.

The 2022 World Cup is regarded as the last shot at glory for Belgium's 'Golden Generation', who must avoid defeat against Croatia to stand any chance of reaching the last 16.

Following their shock 2-0 defeat to Morocco, Jan Vertonghen appeared to take a swipe at Kevin De Bruyne, who suggested the ageing Red Devils were "too old" to launch a genuine challenge in Qatar.

Meanwhile, Eden Hazard stated his belief Roberto Martinez's side had "greater chances" of glory in Russia four years ago, when they were narrowly beaten 1-0 by France in the semi-finals.

"I guess we attack badly because we are also too old up front," Vertonghen told reporters in the mixed zone after the loss against the Atlas Lions.

Courtois, who will earn his 100th cap should he play against Croatia, revealed there had been a discussion among the group on Monday, and that the rumours have spurred his team-mates on.

"The problem is that too many lies are spread," he said. "A situation is described that doesn't exist. As a group, we need to avoid that negativity.

"Everything was clarified yesterday. Everyone has openly expressed their opinion. Now, we have to take action on the field. It's good that we had a group conversation. We said what we thought to each other.

"We have to be honest with each other and fight for each other on the pitch."

Hazard also denied there was a confrontation in the dressing-room after the Morocco defeat, but the Red Devils captain admitted he had held a conversation with De Bruyne about his comments.

"Nothing happened in the dressing-room," he said. "Only the coach spoke. I spoke to Kevin De Bruyne, he does believe in the group.

"We had a good talk among the players. A lot has been said. We talked for an hour about good things and less good things. Now, we want to win against Croatia. We have to be ready."

The Netherlands have been officially confirmed as hosts for the 2023 Nations League Finals.

The Oranje were widely expected to welcome their rivals to face them on home soil, as only them and Group A4 opponents Belgium, Poland and Wales expressed an interest in staging the knockout finale.

Having seen off the trio to qualify as group winners, the Netherlands will now welcome Croatia, Italy and Spain next year for the climax to the 2022-23 edition.

In the absence of the Johan Cruyff Arena and Philips Stadion due to concerts, the matches will be played instead at Feyenoord's De Kuip and De Grolsch Veste - the home of FC Twente.

The tournament commences with the semi-finals on June 14 and June 15, while the final and third-place play-off will take place on June 18.

The draw to determine the last-four pairings will be made at UEFA's headquarters in Nyon next January.

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