Croatia saw off a spirited but exhausted Morocco to win 2-1 and seal a third-placed finish at the World Cup.
Zlatko Dalic’s side were torn apart by Lionel Messi and Argentina in the semi-finals, but looked more like their old selves today as they controlled the game and produced the lion’s share of the chances.
Morocco’s magic ran out during the semi-final defeat against France, and it looked like this could be another game too far for the Atlas Lions, who conceded after just six minutes when Josko Gvardiol headed home from an intricate set-piece routine.
Just two minutes later, however, Morocco levelled the scores with a goal truly in the spirit of how they have played throughout this World Cup. Having burst through the lines to put Croatia under pressure and win a free-kick, centre-back Achraf Dari was able to capitalise on the confusion in the opposition penalty area to head home from close range.
It was the perfect opening 10 minutes to a match many feared would have the feeling of a dead rubber, with both sides clearly intent on ending this World Cup on a high.
Both sides continued to cause each other problems as the half wore on, but it was Croatia who took the lead again shortly before half-time. Morocco failed to clear the ball after a Croatia attack and Marko Livaja was able to tee up Mislav Orsic, who curled a delightful finish past Yassine Bounou and in off the far post.
The second half lacked the pace and end-to-end excitement of the first, with Morocco succumbing to multiple injuries that forced Walid Regragui to move midfielder Sofyan Amrabat into central defence.
The biggest talking point came with 20 minutes to go, when referee Abdulrahman Ibrahim Al Jassim waved away shouts for a penalty after Gvardiol went down in the box.
Replays showed that the defender had indeed had his foot swept away by Amrabat, but bizarrely VAR opted against intervening.
Though Morocco kept pushing until the end, going close in the dying seconds through Youssef En-Nesyri, Croatia were able to hold on for a 2-1 win and take the prize of a third-place finish.
Though both sides will have been dreaming of reaching a coveted World Cup final, they did themselves proud today and made it a proper contest.
Croatia player ratings (3-5-2)
GK: Dominik Livakovic – 7/10 – Made a couple of good stops to cap off a fantastic tournament.
CB: Josip Stanisic – 7/10 – A very assured display from the defender, who has had an excellent World Cup.
CB: Josip Sutalo – 6/10 – A solid if unspectacular performance.
CB: Josko Gvardiol – 8/10 – What a thumping header Gvardiol scored to put Croatia in front. He’s well and truly announced himself in Qatar and was imperious once again today.
RWB: Lovro Majer – 6/10 – Didn’t really feature all that Much in Croatia’s attacks and was rightfully substituted.
CM: Mateo Kovacic – 7/10 – Another vintage display from Kovacic, who has quietly been every bit as effective as his partner in crime Modric at this World Cup. Really should have scored that late chance, though…
CM: Luka Modric – 7/10 – This could well be the last time we see Modric in a Croatia shirt, and the 37-year-old did not disappoint as he looked wonderfully composed throughout.
LWB: Ivan Perisic – 8/10 – Perisic has had an excellent World Cup and finished in style here, assisting Gvardiol’s goal with a deftly flicked header. Another Croatian player who might not see another World Cup, the Tottenham Hotspur winger reminded his country what they’ll be missing when he goes.
AM: Andrej Kramaric – 7/10 – Put in an industrious shift and it was sad to see his afternoon ended early with an injury.
ST: Mislav Orsic – 7/10 – Fans of Spurs and Chelsea still have nightmares about Orsic from his Champions League displays for Dinamo Zagreb, and he lived up to his reputation here with a gorgeous curled finish.
ST: Marko Livaja – 6/10 – Got an assist, but was also at fault for the breakdown of numerous Croatia attacks.
SUB: Nikola Vlasic (61′ for Kramaric – 6/10
SUB: Mario Pasalic (66′ for Livaja) – 5/10
SUB: Bruno Petkovic (66′ for Majer) – 6/10
SUB: Kristijan Jakic (95′ for Orsic) – N/A
Zlatko Dalic – 7/10 – Croatia weren’t themselves against Argentina, but Dalic had his side purring again today. Deserves extra points if he had any involvement in devising that free-kick routine, too.
Morocco player ratings (4-3-3)
GK: Yassine Bounou – 5/10 – He’s been arguably the best goalkeeper at this World Cup, but Bounou looked far from assured between the sticks today.
RB: Achraf Hakimi 6/10 – Defended well and drove his side forward continuously, but lacked the end product that could have turned things around for his side.
CB: Jawad El Yamiq – 6/10 – Had a fine game but was forced off through injury.
CB: Achraf Dari – 7/10 – Scored a well-taken goal and defended well, though sadly had to depart early with an injury.
LB: Yahia Attiyat Allah – 5/10 – Never really got going.
DM: Sofyan Amrabat – 6/10 – Not the finest hour for Amrabat, who has been one of the stars of this World Cup – although, in his defence, he did have to slot into the back line for the final half an hour due to injuries to his teammates.
CM: Abdelhamid Sabiri – 5/10 – Morocco’s low-block tactics didn’t help to control the game as it has throughout this tournament, and the game largely passed Sabiri by before he was hooked at half-time.
CM: Bilal El Khannous – 6/10 – Like Sabiri, struggled to make a meaningful impact against a steadfast and experienced Croatian midfield.
RW: Hakim Ziyech – 7/10 – A bright spark in the Moroccan attack, most of their best play went through Ziyech.
LW: Sofiane Boufal – 6/10 – The former Southampton man has earned plaudits with his displays in Qatar, but today was more familiar to what Saints fans might remember from his time on the south coast.
ST: Youssef En-Nesyri – 5/10 – Peripheral to much of the game’s action – although to be fair, he hardly had a whiff of service from his teammates.
SUB: Ilias Chair (46′ for Sabiri) – 5/10
SUB: Azzedine Ounahi (56′ for Khannous) – 6/10
SUB: Anass Zaroury (64′ for Boufal) – 6/10
SUB: Badr Banoune (64′ for Dari) – 5/10
SUB: Selim Amallah (68′ for El Yamiq) – 5/10
Walid Regragui – 6/10 – Regragui only took charge of Morocco in August and has overachieved massively with the side at the World Cup, creating a well-organised and incredibly effective team. If we’re being critical, however, one could blame the manager for his reluctance to rotate arguably causing the swathe of injuries which nullified his side’s performances against France and Croatia.