If Croatia are to repeat the heroics of four years ago in Russia in Qatar, they need to make their own piece of history after opening their tournament here with a frustrating draw against Morocco.
The Croatians have not won the opening game of a World Cup in four of their six appearances. After the other three, they didn’t make it out of their group.
Losing finalists in the last heat, Luka Modric and company have high hopes again, and with many of the heroes of this famous run dressing up one more time for one last dance, there’s still every chance they could make it. But that result, a 0-0 draw at Al Bayt Stadium early in Group F, and the performance that came with it, was far from what they had hoped for. In fact, group rivals Belgium and Canada will be happiest with the result here.
With the afternoon sun blazing, it was hardly surprising that Croatia set the pace early on and their ever-reliable midfield trio took charge and controlled things from the centre. Taking center stage was Modric, certainly playing his last major tournament of a glittering career, still the arch-metronome he always was, dictating the tempo of everything around him seemingly without any concern, his otherworldly powers somehow extending to ensure that too he avoided further action on a number of ill-timed defense challenges. Ivan Perisic, a star four years ago, shot over with a speculative long-range effort as they pushed to add some strength to their early possession.
Morocco’s best moments in a largely uneventful first half came as expected from the returning Hakim Ziyech, the Chelsea full-back who has come back from the cold under new manager Walid Regragui. A blocked snap and a dangerous cross in the early rallies indicated where their biggest threat would come from. A free kick in the shooting area from 25 meters away was wastefully hit directly against the wall.
While both sides struggled for a final pass – a theme that emerged from a series of closer contests at the start of this tournament – the half came to life with two chances within minutes of the break, with West Ham striker Nikola Vlasic at heart both stood.
First, left-back Borna Sosa found a skillful run to the near post, only goalkeeper Yassine Bounou was able to react well to parry before a blocked shot, again from Vlasic, landed kindly for Modric on the edge of the area only for a stabbing drive to just over the bar to rise.
With the noise mounting from the stands, belying another row of empty seats at this most remote venue and home of Sunday’s infamous tournament opener, the game’s action picked up accordingly. The sea of red and green behind goal cried out for a penalty as Sofiane Boufal’s shot on goal after the break appeared to find a Croatian arm before the Croatians threatened themselves at the other end, with Achraf Hakimi acting quickly to clear.
The Moroccan support, who added an Icelandic thunderbolt to their growing repertoire as the game progressed to bring more life into the game, saw their team react by missing Youssef En-Nesyri with a flat ball before Hakimi made the sharpest save in the afternoon by Dominik Livakovic with a flick after a well-worked free kick.
Perhaps spurred on by the efforts of Saudi Arabia and Tunisia on Tuesday, Morocco were pushing for a famous winner, but with an end product too fleeting to keep up with their admirable energy, it was in vain. However, the Atlas Lions and their fans, who kept singing to the end, will be more than happy to have won by a point to reach the Round of 16 for the first time in 36 years.
A missed opportunity for Croatia. You have to hope that things will get better now, otherwise another World Cup visit could come up short again.