AL KHOR, QATAR: Morocco were held 0-0 by Croatia in their opening World Cup match on Wednesday, putting up a spirited display against 2018 runners-up led by Luka Modric.
Supported by the large Moroccan community in Qatar at Al Bayt Stadium, the Atlas Lions followed Tunisia’s strong performance by their North African rivals against the Danish black horses the day before to disappoint Croatia.
“It was a very difficult match,” said Modric, captain of the Croatia national team. “I think as the tournament goes on we will be better and we will be more proactive.”
And Modric insisted Croatia could mount another deep run despite their slow start early in the afternoon.
“We didn’t come here to just play and take out the group,” Modric said.
“Our ambitions are a little bigger based on our achievements with Russia, but we have to take it step by step.
“Even before the 2018 World Cup we said our main goal was to get out of the group. If we can do that, we can be a dangerous opponent for any team.”
Coach Zlatko Dalic had urged Croatia to be cautious after Saudi Arabia’s shock victory over Argentina, a result Morocco captain Roman Saïss said “opened the door” to lesser-known teams in the tournament.
Morocco took the game to a four-man Croatia side who started the 2018 final but struggled to create real chances against a defense orchestrated by veteran Dejan Lovren.
Ezzedine Onahi bizarrely chose not to fire when well positioned inside the area, with Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi aggressively engaged down the right without really threatening Croatia.
And Ivan Perisic hit the ball from a distance against Croatia, after he intercepted a terrible pass from Salim Amal Allah, while goalkeeper Yassin Bono saved with his feet to deny Nikola Vlasic from close range.
A former Ballon d’Or winner, Modric made his fourth World Cup appearance at the age of 37, firing from the edge of the penalty area.
Morocco lost Nosair Mazraoui early in the second half after he was headbutted into a fall, and the Bayern Munich full-back injured himself when he fell awkwardly to the ground.
Sofiane Amrabat pushed Lovren’s shot from the goal away from the goal line after scrambling in a corner kick, while Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Levakovic exposed a free kick to Al-Hakimi at the other end and was defeated peacefully.
Only once has Morocco made it past the group stage, in 1986, but they will assess their chances of advancing with matches against an aging Belgium and Canada out of Group F.
Croatia pushed to victory late on but found Morocco’s defense in a ruthless mood as Walid Regragui’s side secured a well-deserved point.
“I think it’s a very good point for us,” said Regragui, who was appointed as Morocco coach only in late August.
“It keeps us alive for the next two games. I’m very proud of my players. I think this match makes us more confident.”