The win and a place in the round of 16 at the World Cup was there for Belgium. All the team needed was for Romelu Lukaku to score as the ball reached him in front of goal in the final seconds.
Somehow, he missed.
Belgium and its aging generation of players were eliminated Thursday after a 0-0 draw with Croatia, who advanced as the second-place team in Group F behind Morocco.
While Croatia, the 2018 runners-up and a 1998 semifinalists, aims for another deep run at the World Cup, Belgium face the break-up of their talented but underachieving squad after failing to live up to their status as the second-ranked team and one of the tournament favorites.
Lukaku, who came on as a half-time substitute and squandered several great chances, punched the side of the dugout as he walked off, knocking the plexiglass screen out of place.
Not only did he fail to guide in that late chance from close range, he hit a shot against the post with the goal beckoning. Another chance, from a header in front of goal, sailed over the bar, but it's not clear if the goal would have counted.
What has long been called Belgium's "Golden Generation", now featuring six players with more than 100 appearances, is set to split with the World Cup semifinal appearance in 2018 as its peak.
The team, who have faced questions of infighting between players during the tournament in Qatar, scored only one goal in three games and saved their best performance until their final match. It came too late.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, who has been in charge for more than six years, was asked after the game if he will remain coach.
"Now is not the moment," he answered.
Belgium World Cup 2022 squad
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Koen Casteels
Defenders: Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Wout Faes, Arthur Theate, Zeno Debast, Thomas Meunier, Timothy Castagne
Midfielders: Kevin De Bruyne, Youri Tielemans, Amadou Onana, Axel Witsel, Hans Vanaken, Leander Dendoncker, Yannick Carrasco, Thorgan Hazard
Forwards: Eden Hazard, Charles De Ketelaere, Leandro Trossard, Dries Mertens, Jeremy Doku, Romelu Lukaku, Michy Batshuayi, Lois Openda
Who was supposed to be their best player?
Belgium’s stars include Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.
De Bruyne was awarded the player of the match accolade against Canada, but our readers rated goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois as Belgium's best player during the game.
What are Belgium's results and fixtures?
November 23: Belgium 1 Canada 0
November 27: Belgium 0 Morocco 2
December 1: Croatia 0 Belgium 0
What is Belgium’s World Cup record?
Belgium’s best World Cup finish came in the last edition of the tournament. They secured third place at Russia 2018 after beating England in the play-off, bettering their previous highest finish of fourth in 1986. Belgium first qualified for the tournament in 1930 and will compete in it for the 14th time this winter.
Argentina | Australia | Belgium | Brazil | Cameroon | Canada | Costa Rica | Croatia | Denmark | Ecuador | England | France | Germany | Ghana | Iran | Japan | Mexico | Morocco | Netherlands | Poland | Portugal | Qatar | Saudi Arabia | Senegal | Serbia | South Korea | Spain | Switzerland | Tunisia | Uruguay | USA | Wales