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 Joško Gvardiol and 25-year-old Nikola Vlašić, 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 Pepe” 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.
Nikola Vlašić, the younger brother of former high jump world champion Blanka Vlašić, usually plays as an attacking midfielder. But on a Croatia team featuring the likes of Luka Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić in midfield, Vlašić 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, Vlašić is often involved in the buildup to goals and also puts a lot of shots on target.
Vlašić 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.
Belgium also relies on a veteran attacking core of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku — who has not 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 for Belgium coach Roberto Martinez.
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.
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,” Vlašić 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