Walid Regragui had called it the booby prize, but it was reward enough for Croatia’s great overachievers. Silver medallists in 2018, they now pocket the bronze for coming third to mean the greatest World Cup campaign by an African side culminates in a fourth-place finish for Morocco.
If neither scenario felt likely when these teams shared a stalemate to kick off their campaigns in forgettable fashion, a relatively low-pressure match had a liberating effect and afforded rather more entertainment. Perhaps Croatia were stung by the criticisms that, penalty shootouts apart, they had only defeated Canada but they scored two brilliant goals. Josko Gvardiol got the first and perhaps the finest centre-back of the World Cup showed that his tournament should be remembered for much more than being embarrassed by Lionel Messi. The decider came from the outstanding Mislav Orsic; granted only 26 minutes before this – which was still enough time for him to get an assist against Brazil – he suggested he had been underused.
As Zlatko Dalic made five changes, his charges indicated a small country still boasts some strength in depth. Lovro Majer was hugely influential, offering Croatia hope for their midfield when Luka Modric finally gives way. The captain himself ended his World Cup career with an inadvertent assist of sorts for Morocco, but also with some typically elegant passing and a display of doggedness; a youthful 37, he completed the 90 minutes. Meanwhile, Ivan Perisic’s assist at the right end put him joint top of that particular chart.
If Modric and Perisic could not quite emulate their achievements four years ago, this Croatia side at least equalled the team of 1998, who also lost a semi-final to France and finished third.
But while Croatia were vibrant going forward, showing they can do much more than just play for penalties, Morocco were less resilient in defence than they had been, instead demonstrating the attacking verve they also produced against France.
They were without the trio of defenders Regragui had originally selected against France, but who did not make it out for the second half then, in Nayef Aguerd, Romain Saiss and Noussair Mazrouai. They looked flimsier in their absence and when Jawad El Yamiq went off, Sofyan Amrabat, arguably the best defensive midfielder of the World Cup, ended up in the back four.
If it felt a private competition for the title of the tournament’s best goalkeeper, both conceded in a two-minute spell and Bono could have found his own net before then, a woefully misdirected pass almost resulting in an embarrassing own goal.
When he was defeated, however, there was much to admire about Croatia’s opener. It was perhaps the second best free-kick routine of the tournament, after Wout Weghorst’s equaliser against Argentina. With Modric looking likely to take a free kick, Majer instead chipped it to Perisic, who headed it back across the box. Gvardiol supplied a similarly precise header.
A second free kick brought a second goal, albeit aided by a dash of fortune. Hakim Ziyech’s free kick looped up off Modric and Achraf Dari reacted swiftest to head past Dominik Livakovic from close range.
After Modric was denied a valedictory goal by Bono, the goalkeeper was left clawing at thin air by Orsic, whose audacious curling effort went in via the far post. In the process, the Dinamo Zagreb forward offered himself as a challenger for Perisic’s position on the left wing while Croatia’s second-highest scorer stood in at left-back.
But Morocco were not subdued; certainly their supporters, who had their last 90 minutes of whistling for this World Cup, were not muted. Youssef En-Nesyri had three chances to equalise, glancing a header just wide, being denied by a terrific save by Livakovic, and heading over deep in stoppage time. They had a series of penalty appeals and Gvardiol was needed to excel. While Mateo Kovacic almost added a third for Croatia, they got the third that mattered on the day: third place, and Modric could bow out with another medal.
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