- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
AL KHOR, Qatar — Croatia and Morocco drew 0-0 at Al Bayt Stadium on the first of four 2022 World Cup matches on Wednesday in an attritional match which only had flashes of class.
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Morocco will be by far the happier of the two sides with their performance as they prevented any Croatian creativity. With the match restricted to a host of half chances, Croatia had the best opportunity of the match in the first half when Nikola Vlasic had a close-range shot blocked by Yassine Bounou. Morocco had other glimpses of goal but only really troubled the keeper with a long-range effort from Achraf Hakimi.
Given Croatia reached the final of the 2018 World Cup, they’re going to have to improve quickly if they are to get anywhere near that stage again. While for Morocco, with Belgium and Canada to come, they are still in with a real shot at making the knockouts but they face a nervous wait over one of their star players after Noussair Mazraoui left on a stretcher in the second half.
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1. Croatia stuck between two eras
You had both sides of Croatia here. There was the spine of their wonderful team which reached the 2018 final, and also the next generation. Luka Modric is still the heartbeat of this Croatia outfit but, aged 37, time is ticking for him. At the other end of the scale is defender Josko Gvardiol, the ridiculously talented 20-year-old left-sided centre back who is on RB Leipzig’s books. He’s catching the eye of just about every major European side and you can see why after his imperious performance against Morocco.
But in between the two age groups there was mediocrity. Nikola Vlasic was largely anonymous while Andrej Kramaric was ineffectual. Croatia time and time again got into positions where they could float a cross on to the six-yard line, but with a lack of intensity and pressure, Morocco could clear their lines. That saw Croatia restricted to a pair of opportunities in the first half — first Vlasic had a close-range effort saved, and then Modric fired over from just outside the box. The second half saw a series of half chances, but Croatia lacked a cutting edge up front.
While they are good at soaking up pressure at the back, they are lacking a ruthlessness in front of goal and unless they solve that sooner rather than later, they’re in danger of not making it out of the group, let alone getting to the latter stages.
2. Ziyech takes chance to impress
If the football world needed a reminder, Hakim Ziyech showed that he still possesses a wonderful box of tricks, and, if utilised correctly, is a game-changer. Ziyech has started just one match in the Premier League this season for Chelsea, and since Graham Potter took charge, he’s managed just 32 minutes under the new boss. With the January transfer window opening 13 days after the end of the World Cup, Ziyech’ will likely be linked with a move away from Chelsea and you can expect him to have plenty of suitors, most notably Serie A champions AC Milan.
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It’s never quite clicked for Ziyech at Chelsea but he is back at home with Morocco. The forward was in the international wilderness at the start of the year and made himself unavailable under previous manager Vahid Halilhodzic. But with the change at the top coming just three months ago and Walid Regragui in the hot seat, Ziyech is back — alongside Mazraoui who was also ostracised from the national team — and Morocco are reaping the benefit.
He showcased all of his wonderful skillset at the Al Bayt Stadium, with Youssef En-Nesyri just inches from managing to get a head on a delightfully judged Ziyech cross in the first half. Ziyech and the outstanding Hakimi were a constant menace for Borna Sosa to deal with and when he has time, space and open field, he is dangerous. But you also saw the other side of his game as at times, he was anonymous. He needs to find a way to turn the balance of matches back in his team’s favour, rather than finding space and waiting for the ball to come to him.
3. Passionate fans make up for disappointing attendance
The official attendance was 59,407 inside the Al Bayt Stadium but there were still swathes of empty seats, a trend we’ve seen across the early group stage matches. The official attendances are dubious at best in terms of their accuracy to the naked eye, but what the ground may lack in capacity, it makes up for in noise. Just like we saw with Tunisia’s fans against Denmark on Tuesday, these underdog teams feed off the incredible support from the stands. Walking around Doha last week, before the influx of fans from further afield, there were hundreds of fans in Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia jerseys. And that support from the stands is lifting the players.
Morocco’s players had more physicality and intensity than their Croatian counterparts and the mere sniff of a chance drew a humungous reception from the crowd. The attendances may be unreliable, but the noise from the stands is a wonderful guarantee.
Morocco: Bounou 7, Hakimi 8, Mazraoui 7, Aguerd 7, Saiss 7, Amrabat 7, Ounahi 7, Amallah 5, Ziyech 7, Boufal 7, En Nesyri 6.
Subs: Attiat-Allah 6, Ezzalzouli 6, Hamdallah 6, Sabiri 6.
Croatia: Livakovic 7, Lovren 7, Sosa 5, Gvardiol 8, Juranovic 6, Kovacic 6, Modric 7, Brozovic 6, Perisic 6, Vlasic 5, Kramaric 5.
Subs: Pasalic 6, Livaja 6, Majer 6, Orsic 6.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Achraf Hakimi
No wonder the Moroccan right-back is one of the most popular players at the World Cup, he was fantastic against Croatia and even ran rings around Modric at one point in the first half.
WORST: Andrej Kramaric
The Hoffenheim striker barely had a kick and offered little up front for Croatia.
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
Croatia’s streak of 11 straight World Cup matches scoring at least one goal was the longest active streak entering the 2022 FIFA World Cup; Portugal’s six-match run is now the longest active streak among teams inqatar.
Morocco are yet to win a group-stage game at the World Cup after seven matches in which they have been tied at half-time
This is the 15th World Cup match Croatia have played that was tied at half-time, 63% of all of their games. Of teams to play more than 10 World Cup matches the only team with a higher percentages of matches to be tied at half-time is Japan (71%).
Gvardiol became the first Croatia player ever to complete more than 90 passes in a World Cup match, beating Modric’s previous best of 89 at Russia 2018.
Abde Ezzalzouli (20 years, 341 days) is the second-youngest player ever to play for Morocco at a World Cup after Achraf Hakimi (19 years, 223 days)
Morocco: The Atlas Lions will play their last two group games at Al Thumama. First they will face Belgium on Sunday, before playing a potentially decisive final match against Canada on Thursday, Dec. 1.
Croatia: The 2018 runners-up take on Canada at the Khalifa International Stadium on Sunday, and then face Belgium in Al Rayyan for the group’s most glamorous tie four days later.
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