Belgium missed out on a place at UEFA EURO 2004™ on the head-to-head rule despite sweeping to 16 points in Group 8 after an impressive 2-0 victory over Estonia.
An own goal from Raio Piiroja and a strike from Thomas Buffel gave the hosts a deserved victory. But heartbreak set in when it was confirmed that Croatia had beaten Bulgaria to claim the Group 8 play-off slot thanks to their record in their two meetings with Belgium. Although the Belgians beat Croatia 2-1 last month, they had earlier lost 4-0 in Zagreb.
Aimé Anthuenis' side, who needed a positive result to stand any realistic chance of qualifying, knew they would have to take the game to the visitors. But it was Estonia who mustered the first real attack with Urmas Rooba's 20-metre shot forcing a wonderful reaction save from Geert De Vlieger in the Belgium goal.
Belgium responded almost immediately but - after good build-up play - Philippe Clement's close-range header was well dealt with by Mart Poom. The hosts were now in the ascendancy and after 18 minutes Walter Baseggio sent a thunderous shot just centimetres wide of the busy Poom's goal.
Belgium pour forward
Both Emile Mpenza and Wesley Sonck went close before Belgium finally took the lead just a minute before half-time courtesy of a defensive error from their opponents. Baseggio raced down the right before whipping in a dangerous ball across the Estonia goal. Sonck charged in, forcing Estonian defender Piiroja to panic and head the ball into his own net. It was exactly what Belgium deserved after 45 minutes of constant pressure.
Flurry of attacks
The second half began exactly as the first had ended with Belgium peppering Poom's goal with shots from Baseggio and Mpenza. Estonia missed out on a great opportunity to equalise in the 57th minute, however, when Kristen Viikmäe's blistering shot was saved by the impressive De Vlieger.
But Belgium, anxious to confirm the victory which would give them the hope of a play-off berth, doubled their lead after 62 minutes through Thomas Buffel. The striker exchanged passes with Mpenza before lifting the ball over Poom to put Belgium well in command. After Buffel's vital second neither side really threatened and the home fans were left hoping the Croatia result would go in their favour.
But minutes after the final whistle, news filtered through that Croatia had earned the victory they needed to reach the play-offs denying Belgium a trip to Portugal next year.
No chance to shine
After the game Belgium boss Anthuenis admitted he was devastated his side would not get the chance to show the rest of Europe exactly how far his side have come since UEFA EURO 2000™. "I am pleased with the way my side played but very disappointed we will not get chance to go to Portugal," he said. "Had we gone I think we may have surprised a few people."