Morocco's marvels end historic World Cup in fourth after narrow defeat against Croatia

Atlas Lions are just edged out in another thrilling contest in Doha

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Croatia were third, Morocco millimetres behind in fourth.

The admirably dogged duo played out a suitably gripping affair in Doha on Saturday night, neither one conceding an inch in the supposed dead rubber, no one backing down until they had nothing left to give.

The penultimate match of the World Cup’s 64, the one no team apparently wants, burst into life from the off and never really relented. In the end, Croatia took it 2-1, took the bronze to go with the silver from four years ago, this tiny nation registering another titanic World Cup campaign.

Morocco, the record-breakers and pioneers, suffered a second defeat in three days - their only two in Qatar — but it could not detract from what they had achieved. Like Croatia, they will have tales to tell for a lifetime.

So much for the “booby prize”, then. Walid Regragui had labelled it as such 24 hours before kick-off, but with a caveat. The pain of Morocco’s semi-final defeat still pinched, the disappointment of what could have been on Wednesday and against France not yet passed.

Thus, the third-placed play-off against Croatia, Regragui offered, felt scant consolation for a month of mammoth effort from his men. Of history-making, too.

Morocco had blazed a trail for Africa and the Arab world. Against all odds, they were among the final four teams at a World Cup.

On Saturday, at a heaving Khalifa International Stadium where Moroccan fans did what they have all tournament, that’s where they remained. But only just.

They were patched up, the scars of a seventh game in a month there to see on the team sheet. There was no captain Romain Saiss or partner Nayef Aguerd – Morocco’s first-choice centre-backs – while Noussair Mazraoui, the Bayern Munich left-back, was also out. The trio were injured. Azzedine Ounahi, a breakout star of Qatar 2022 in what has felt a team of them, was on the bench.

But Croatia were similarly hamstrung. The tireless 2018 runners-up, in which the joke went they had finally run out of legs after four-and-a-half years, made five changes from the team that lost on Tuesday to Argentina.

Still, Luka Modric led them out, Mateo Kovacic was soon there in the middle alongside him, and the typically imperious Josko Gvardiol marshalled the defence in Dejan Lovren’s absence.

Both teams, apparently finding a second or third or whatever wind, raced from the blocks. Seven minutes had gone when Croatia worked a beautifully inventive free-kick, Modric floating it to Ivan Perisic, who flicked a header to Josko Gvardiol. The centre-back hurled himself at the ball and headed high past Yassine Bounou (Bono) in the Morocco goal.

For the man at the middle of the Lionel Messi memes after the semi-finals, nevertheless a real standout performer this tournament, it felt just reward. Little wonder Europe’s major clubs are said to be circling. Cash in, and RB Leipzig could make a killing.

Yet, as Croatia collected themselves, Morocco caught them out. Achraf Dari met a high, looping ball into the penalty area and sent it past rival goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic. There were 112 seconds between the goals. The tone for a see-saw contest was set.

Bono then palmed away a Modric shot; Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi combined brilliantly but could not find Youssef En-Nesyri; Sofiane Boufal’s skipped a couple of challenges but couldn’t provide the finish.

Morocco coach Walid Regragui talks with referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim after the match. Reuters

At the other end, Mislav Orsic did. Minutes before half-time, the Croatia forward took possession just inside the Morocco penalty area and bent a sublime effort far beyond Bono’s reach. The shot ricocheted off the far post before nestling in the net.

The second half lacked the intensity of the first, but that should be no surprise considering everything these two teams had given throughout their respective stays in Qatar.

With 16 minutes remaining, Croatia screamed for a penalty. The marauding Gvardiol looked to have been bundled over in the area by Moroccan Sofyan Amrabat – the midfielder was now deployed in defence – but the referee waved away appeals.

Seconds later, Livakovic thwarted En-Nesyri as he bore down on goal. Late on, Kovacic screwed wide. In the dying moments, En-Nesyri headed on to the roof of the Croatia goal.

The final whistle went and Croatia’s players and staff sprung from the bench. It was not the match anyone coveted, but Zlatko Dalic’s side had edged out Morocco. Third was theirs.

Morocco, fourth at a World Cup - fourth at a World Cup — could take solace in what surely represents a bright future.

Updated: December 17, 2022, 5:23 PM