Croatia clinched their third top-three finish at the FIFA World Cup with a 2-1 play-off victory over tournament sensation and history-makers Morocco on Saturday night at Khalifa International Stadium.
Zlatko Dalic’s side once again showed their class in Qatar having finished runners-up to France four years ago and confirmed their status as one of the elite footballing nations with another third-place finish to go alongside that secured in their competition debut in 1998.
Morocco finished fourth, the best result for an African nation in World Cup history.
A much more exciting 90 minutes of football was what fans saw than many had anticipated, as both sides have left the shackles firmly off.
Josko Gvardiol dived to head in his first goal of the World Cup and break the deadlock for Croatia in the seventh minute, but celebrations didn’t last long as Achraf Dari also used his head to equalize just a minute later.
But the Croatians had the final say still in the first half when Mislav Orsic pulled out a stunning curler from distance to put them ahead before the break.
Croatia’s opening goal was by one who is not even 21 years old and gives a glimpse of the future of Croatian international football. Gvardiol is the youngest Croatian to score in a FIFA World Cup match. Gvardiol put his team ahead with a header after a well-worked free-kick routine, 1-0.
With Luka Modric looking likely to be retiring from international football, Croatia is understandably looking to see where their next generation of stars is to come from.
Dari levels it up with a header of his own. Modric flicks on a free kick from the right from Morocco, and the defender finishes from close range, 1-1.
Orsic puts his side back in front with a peach of a shot. Morocco fail to clear their lines and the Croat punishes them with the sweetest of curling efforts. Orsic scored a beauty to put his team back in front, but Morocco have had their chances as well, as they continue to show how good they are at attacking, as well as defending. Orsic, curling, looping try sailed over the keeper, but with power, clipping the inside of the post and ending in the nets.
After that frantic first 10 minutes inside the Khalifa International Stadium, this game has settled more into the expected pattern. Croatia are starting to dominate possession, with Morocco happy to sit deep and contain.
There wasn’t much to see on the pitch during the second half as both teams looked exhausted after a hard-fought first part and coming from intense semi-final games.
We may have not seen any more goals in the second half, but it was still an intriguing watch with both teams getting feisty as the game progressed. Croatia showed their class at this level, and had the better chances to score even as Morocco chased a leveller.
There was a spark of action in the 74th when Gvardiol was set to complete his brace but went down inside the box. Croatia players and bench screamed for a penalty but nothing was given.
In response, Morocco found Youssef En-Nesyri unmarked inside the box but his effort from close-range was denied by a massive save from Dominik Livakovic in the 77th.
This was the second time the teams met in Qatar after they played out a goalless draw in their Group F opener on November 23. While Croatia failed to reach the final following a 3-0 defeat to Argentina, Morocco lost 2-0 to champions France in the semi-finals.
Some of the Morocco players surround the referee at the end, but if anything it’s Croatia that should have had a penalty awarded in that second half.
Not a great look from the Atlas Lions, but they’ve been a great team throughout this World Cup.