Preview: Croatia vs. Morocco
A World Cup 2022 bronze medal is on the line between Croatia and Morocco in Saturday’s third-placed playoff at the Khalifa International Stadium, and neither side should turn their noses up to a podium finish on the grandest stage.
Zlatko Dalic’s side were comfortably seen off 3-0 by Argentina in their semi-final, while the Atlas Lions fought valiantly against France but were put to the sword by two goals to nil.
Very few attackers have come face to face with the masked warrior that is Josko Gvardiol and got the better of the RB Leipzig youngster, but even one of the most in-demand defenders in Europe was no match for a 35-year-old Lionel Messi.
Prior to his downright humiliation of a man 15 years his junior, Messi crashed home the opening goal of Argentina’s semi-final with Croatia from the penalty spot before Julian Alvarez’s solo run brought La Albiceleste their second, albeit with some slices of good fortune after a couple of ricochets.
There was nothing fortunate about Argentina’s third, as Messi rolled back the years on the right-hand side before picking out Alvarez to tap home Argentina’s third and deny Croatia a second successive appearance at a World Cup final – against 2018 foes France, no less.
Dalic’s side remarkably reached the 2018 final and the semi-finals of the 2022 edition without winning a knockout game in normal time, and they are not complete novices in bronze medal matches, having beaten the Netherlands 2-1 in the 1998 third-placed playoff during their inaugural World Cup campaign.
For a side who have consistently proven their prowess in extra time periods and penalty shootouts, Croatia will not be relieved to hear that the third-placed playoff has never been decided on spot kicks, and the uninhibited Morocco fanbase will no doubt continue to bang their drums to the maximum for one last ride.
Had it not been for a lack of killer instinct in the final third, Morocco – the first-ever African nation to reach a World Cup semi-final – could have cemented themselves into even greater footballing folklore by becoming the first team from the continent to make it all the way to the final.
Walid Regragui’s side certainly gave France a scare or two in Wednesday’s semi-final, but Theo Hernandez’s acrobatic effort and Randal Kolo Muani’s tap-in 44 seconds after coming onto the pitch ended the Atlas Lions’ dreams of Qatar supremacy.
The Africans’ efforts were not helped by the early withdrawals of injured trio Noussair Mazraoui, Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd, but Morocco’s current crop will no doubt return to their homeland as national heroes and could yet be wearing the bronze medals around their necks on the flight back.
Regragui’s side had not conceded to an opposing player in Qatar before Hernandez breached their backline with only five minutes on the clock on Wednesday, but they could still become the first nation since Spain’s triumphant team of 2010 to keep as many as five clean sheets at a single World Cup.
Croatia and Morocco are renewing hostilities just a few weeks on from their goalless draw in Group F, where the Checkered Ones were restricted to just five attempts against Regragui’s backline, and a similarly steadfast defensive showing could set the Africans on their way to a groundbreaking World Cup honour.
Croatia World Cup form:
Morocco World Cup form:
We say: Croatia 0-1 Morocco
A trident of injured defenders would not spell optimism for any side, but Morocco’s backline stand-ins have put in performances to be proud of and are now facing a Croatia XI who are not renowned for any sort of attacking mastery.
Rearguards will likely come out on top in this bronze medal battle, but Regragui’s side need only improve their final ball to make their periods of pressure count, and we have belief in the Atlas Lions to do just that and end a magical World Cup journey with a podium finish.