Croatia fall flat in 'difficult game' against Morocco in World Cup 2022

Luka Modric and Co fail to make an impact as 2018 runners-up are held to a goalless draw at Al Bayt Stadium

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Runners-up four years ago, the worry is that this Croatian generation might have run out of steam.

Just as it was in Russia 2018, Zlatko Dalic’s side still very much revolves around the typically imperious Luka Modric, but they have been reduced somewhat by a series of key retirements in the interim. Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic, Vedran Corluka and Sime Vrsaljko are no longer there, while Ante Rebic was not selected.

Of course, there remain the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisic - stars at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively - but no doubt the support cast's prowess has pinched a little.

On Wednesday, as Croatia commenced their campaign to go one better than four years ago, that appeared evident. They struggled against Morocco in the Group F opener at Al Bayt Stadium, playing out a goalless draw that contained plenty of effort but minimal enterprise.

Afterwards, Dalic referenced the change from 2018 to now. Only four players that contested the last final against France started on Wednesday.

"This is a whole other team,” the former Al Ain manager said. “Four years have passed since the last World Cup and we have virtually a new national team. We cannot draw comparisons between the two generation of players.

"But this is a team that has high values and competence. This result against Morocco was not a disappointment and proved that this is going to be a difficult tournament.”

On Wednesday, too often Andrej Kramaric was isolated up front, as was Marko Livaja when he replaced him for the final 15 minutes.

Even if Modric, at times, displayed his usual mastery in the middle. The Real Madrid star, who turned 37 in September, debuted at the World Cup as far back as 2006.

Against Morocco, he became the first player to participate in both the World Cup and European Championship in three different decades. It spoke of his enduring quality, but also hinted that he might not be the force in this stage that he once was.

Although, he was still named the official man of the match.

"It was a difficult game, especially in the first 15 minutes, but I thought we were much the better team in the second half,” Modric said. “Our defence was particularly strong, but missed something upfront. If we had been a little sharper in attack we could have opened them up a bit more.”

For all the conviction, neither side deserved more than the point. After a competitive first-half, Croatia came closest, twice, to breaking the deadlock in injury time. First, Perisic played in the charging Borna Sosa on the left, whose low centre found Nikola Vlasic. The striker stabbed the ball towards goal, only for Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou to save with his legs.

Seconds later, defender Nayef Aguerd blocked brilliantly as Vlasic prepared to pull the trigger and, as the ball rebounded to Modric, he drilled a left-footed shot inches over. Modric, whose contribution at the 2018 tournament earned him that year’s Ballon d’Or, puffed out his cheeks as he trudged off for half-time.

Morocco, though, had enjoyed themselves. Cheered on by a vociferous support, they snapped into tackles, swarmed Croatia’s midfield and, through Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Inter Milan’s Achraf Hakimi, had certainly enough going forward to concern their opponents.

On 18 minutes, Ziyech should really have had an assist, but Youssef En Nesyri failed to connect with his fine cross. After the break, Morocco nearly found the net when Bayern Munich defender Noussair Mazraoui’s close-range header was saved at his near post by Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.

Right after, at the other end, Sofyan Amrabat prodded to safety Dejan Lovren’s goal-bound effort. With Bounou laying prone on the pitch following a collision from a corner, Amrabat represented the last line of defence.

Unfortunately for Morocco, their chance moments earlier marked Mazraoui’s last act: he was stretchered off on the hour, this World Cup registering yet another seemingly serious injury. It’s only four days in.

Modric will hope Croatia, who now face Belgium and then Canada, last the entire four weeks.

"We haven’t come here just to compete,” he said. "On the basis of our Russian experience, we have ambitions to do the same or even better. But even before that tournament we said let’s first set a primary objection of getting past the group stage.

"We know that once we get into the knockout rounds, we can be a very dangerous opponent. But don’t misunderstand me; we have greater goals here.”

Updated: November 23, 2022, 3:41 PM
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