The 2022 World Cup is amping up the fun as the knockouts draw near. The goals remain great, the results are still highly unpredictable, and the matches are sensational. With so much happening every day, ESPN India attempts to pick out the one magical moment that defined the day's action.
For day 12, we pick a tackle of immense skill and consequence: Josko Gvardiol on Romelu Lukaku late on to preserve the 0-0 draw Croatia were hanging onto against Belgium.
The clock read 91:32 when Timothy Castagne on the Belgian left flank cut back to his right foot and swung in a delicious ball into the Croatian six-yard box. The score, 0-0. As the ball flew in, the equation was simple: score and Belgium were through. Concede and Croatia were out.
Castagne's ball curved in slightly behind Thorgan Hazard and bounced off the leg of his marker, Borna Sosa and bounced dangerously across the face of the goal, keeper Dominik Livakovic rooted to his line. The moment it hit Sosa's leg, Romelu Lukaku sprung to life.
Lukaku had been sensational since coming on in the second half. After a sluggish first half, Belgium had been clambering all over Croatia for most of the second 45 and he had been the catalyst for that change. He had also been the reason it was still goalless. He'd seen a stinging cross bounce off his knee and out from five yards on one occasion. He'd seen another sensational ball bounce off his chest and harmlessly into Livakovic's hands from even closer. He'd smashed the post off a rebound from just outside the six-yard box.
Which is when the ball bounced out to him, middle of the goal, four yards out, net invitingly empty in front of him. With barely a couple of minutes to go, he must have known this one was going to be it. This one was going in. It had to.
Lukaku spun, stretched and swing his left peg at the same time, tap-in almost certain, confident of a clean connection. Just as he was about to make contact, though, a lime green toe poked the ball away. Just in time.
As Lukaku bounced back up and readied himself for a cross that never came, his face said it all: "How?"
That lime green boot had belonged to 20-year-old Josko Gvardiol, and that incredible challenge had kept Croatia in the World Cup. And kicked Belgium out of it.
Look at it again and you can see how difficult a skill it was that Gvardiol pulled off, under the most intense of pressure. All half long Lukaku had his number with his off-the-ball movement. He may have missed those chances, but he was getting into those positions repeatedly and Gvardiol and his defensive partners had been able to do very little to stop him. He really ought not to have been able to stop him here either. When the ball rebounds off Sosa's leg, Lukaku's reactions are just that touch faster -- the movement of an elite striker. By the time the ball crosses his path, Lukaku is in front of Gvardiol.
The only way he was getting anywhere close to the striker was if he fell to the ground and stretched out his leg at an improbable angle, all in one smooth motion. Time it wrong and he misses the ball or catches the player: both could have ended Croatia's tournament.
The great Paolo Maldini had once said "If I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake." But he himself had been a master tackler. That's because he had known that sometimes, that's all a defender can do. Sometimes, the forward is too clever, too fast, too strong and too in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time.
On the night, in the 92nd minute of this draining virtual knockout match at the biggest stage of them all, Lukaku had been all these things. Gvardiol hadn't made a mistake, but all he could do was fling himself into that last-ditch challenge. And boy did he do just that: pulling off the tackle of the tournament, a moment that could well go on to define this World Cup.