Belgium kept their hopes of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2004™ alive thanks to a hard-earned 2-1 victory against Croatia in their Group 8 encounter in Brussels. Two goals from striker Wesley Sonck proved enough to defeat a Croatia side who finished with ten men.
With Bulgaria having won the group, Croatia face them on 11 October knowing that victory will secure the play-off place. If Otto Baric's side do slip up, then Belgium could overtake them if they record a superior result. "We still have a small chance of qualifying," said Belgium coach Aimé Anthuenis.
Croatia came out looking to win every ball, and as a consequence, Ivica Mornar was booked after just three minutes. Two minutes later, Belgium almost had the lead as Bart Goor seized on a long ball, but shot just wide.
On 33 minutes, Croatia threatened again, as Niko Kovac hit a powerful long-range shot that Geert De Vlieger could only punch over. Just a minute later, Belgium had the lead, as Sonck lifted a 20-metre free-kick over the wall and into the top left-hand corner of the net.
The Belgian fans were still celebrating when the visitors equalised. With 36 minutes played, Milan Rapaic sent in a corner that Dario Simic headed into the net, ending a frantic period of play.
Three minutes before the break, Jonathan Walasiek saw his shot blocked by Stipe Pletikosa in the Croatia goal. Amidst the ensuing chaos in the penalty area, the ball dropped to Sonck, who hit the ball low and hard into the goal. The celebrations were almost cut short again, but this time De Vlieger produced a spectacular save to deny Olic.
Croatia came out in the second half looking for a quick equaliser, pushing forward in numbers. On 47 minutes, Mornar shot from the edge of the area, but De Vlieger was again on hand to make the save. The game became increasingly hard-fought, with Anthuenis describing it as a "battlefield" after the game. Croatia saw four players booked in the second half, and Josip Šimunic was sent off for a second bookable offence on 73 minutes. Having an extra man worked in Belgium's favour as they worked hard to preserve their lead.
Anthuenis said: "Seeing the chances in the match, 2-1 was the best possible result for us. Croatia are a very experienced team, while we had to work hard and display solidarity. It was to be expected that the second half would become a battlefield, but my players proved they are willing to work for each other. This is important because we do not have a world-class team, so have to compensate with hard work."