DOHA: Croatia secured themselves a set of bronze medals by defeating Morocco 2-1 in the third-place playoff of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 at Khalifa Internationaal Stadium on Saturday.
Zlatko Dalic’s men picked themselves up after their 3-0 semi-final loss to Argentina to secure third place for the second time at a FIFA World Cup following their identical feat at France 98.
When these teams met in their opening group game 24 days ago, few would have predicted them meeting again on the tournament’s concluding weekend.
Where that group encounter ended goalless, no third-place play-off has ended that way and their reunion exploded into life with two early goals, both from set plays.
The first was a terrifically worked free-kick with Ivan Perisic nodding the ball across the penalty box where Josko Gvardiol flung himself at it and powered a header past Yassine Bounou, the Morocco goalkeeper. For Perisic it was his fifth World Cup assist.
Morocco equalised almost immediately followed a wide free-kick by Hakim Ziyech, captaining the team on his 50th appearance. The ball looped off the head of Luka Modric on the edge of the area and fell inside the six-yard box where Achraf Dari stooped to nod in his first international goal.
Morocco have delighted both the African and Arab worlds with their unprecedented run to the last four after and though Modric tested Bounou with a low drive, Walid Regragui's men were arguably on top as the first period approached an end. However, it was Croatia who reclaimed the lead just before the break.
Teenager Bilal El Khannouss, making his Morocco debut, won the ball on the edge of his box only to then lose it to Mateo Kovacic. Croatia worked the ball swiftly to Mislav Orsic on the left side of the box and he curled a lovely first-time effort over Bounou and in off the far post.
Croatia were the more likely scorers in the second half, with Kovacic coming closest for the Balkan team in the 87th minute as he dragged a shot wide of the far post.
Morocco only seriously threatened an equaliser deep into injury time with a header from Youssef En-Nesyri which landed on the roof of the net. For Croatia, it was job done.
Gvardiol went into the semi-final having been widely billed as one of the best centre-backs on view at Qatar 2022. His contribution had included a vital goal-saving tackle on Romelu Lukaku to ensure Croatia got out of their group at Belgium's expense.
Yet the 20-year-old Leipzig defender went back to Croatia's base on Tuesday night having become the umpteenth victim of Lionel Messi's brilliance, bamboozled by the little magician, who turned him inside out in setting up the third goal.
Gvardiol bounced back here by scoring his first World Cup following a free-kick routine straight off the training round. Lovro Majer clipped a free-kick towards Ivan Perisic, running away from goal, and the winger flexed his neck muscles superbly to direct the ball back towards the penalty spot where Gvardiol struck with a diving header.
With his goal, moreover, he became his country's youngest World Cup scorer, aged 20 years and 328 days. He may have been wearing a protective face mask in Qatar but he will now head for home with a name that is much more widely known. – FIFA+