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Croatia beat Morocco 2-1 to finish third

For the third time in the last seven World Cups, Croatia have finished on the podium. It may be a step down for the beaten finalists of 2018 but in what will surely be his last game on the biggest stage, Luka Modric gets to bow out a winner.

He was in supreme form to the last as the fairytale run of Morocco was undone in the first half, goals from Josko Gvardiol and Mislav Orsic firing Croatia to another third place finish that means they, along with the great side of 1998, will have bronze medals in their collection.

These games can go one of two ways, either heavy-legged and devastated internationals will trudge through an occasion when they’d rather be anywhere else (all the more understandable in the case of a mid-season World Cup) or the two teams can take it upon themselves to depart the global stage with a flourish. It was swiftly apparent that these two would deliver the latter, an impudently designed free kick seeing Ivan Perisic flick the initial delivery across goal for a diving Josko Gvardiol to flick in.

Their lead lasted less than two minutes. Morocco’s equaliser was far less elegant, no less effective. Hakim Ziyech’s deliver did not clear the second man but a Croatian head merely looped the ball up in the air, Achraf Dari judging its flight and flicking it in. Both sides had their chances for a second before the half was out, Achraf Hakimi crossing just behind Youssef En-Nesyri as he waited to flick into an empty net, but it was Croatia who took it.

Orsic’s goal was among the best scored in this tournament. Finding space of the far left of the penalty area he opened his body and hit something approximating a drilled lob at Yassine Bounou’s far post, the Moroccan goalkeeper stranded as the ball bounced back into his net off the far post.

Moroccan legs might have tired in a second half where scarcely 10 minutes went by without them suffering an injury but they still chased the tie, En-Nesyri drawing an excellent save from Dominik Livakovic moments after Sofyan Amrabat had bafflingly got away with a foul on Gvardiol in his own area. Though En-Nesyri went close with a last gasp header ultimately Croatia’s ability to dictate possession for long stretches meant they were able to grind away at their opponent’s energy reserves, easing to the finish line of another outstanding World Cup campaign.

Tired legs and minds in Moroccan colors

In the end, the sheer effort of getting as far as they did put paid to Morocco’s hopes of achieving the unimaginable. To the last they showed technical quality, but they simply did not have the fitness to stay the course. Perhaps this was rank misfortune, perhaps the price that any team must pay for spending so long without the ball against Portugal and Spain. Walid Regragui’s side ended this tournament the walking wounded, four center backs having fallen in the last week.

Goal-scorer Dari was clearly struggling before the first half was out. There was a quarter of the game left when Tariq El Yamiq left. The starting center backs, Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd, had both been lost within 20 minutes of the defeat to France. No wonder in such circumstances that the belligerent organization of the round of 16 and quarterfinal wins was nowhere to be seen, the Moroccan defense at sea in the first half with nervy clearances and two defenders going to clear a single ball.

Further forward, the same tiredness manifested itself in heavy passes and moves that just died with the last pass. Hakim Ziyech was thoroughly knackered, perhaps moved to a central role because he did not have the legs to beat his man out wide. They probed and tested until the last but the strength was not in them to exert continuous pressure on Croatia.

Croatia bow out on a high

Those who have watched any of this tournament over the past month might feel they have been hammered over their head with Croatian population statistics – did you know that about as many people live in Split, the second largest city, as Hayward, the sixth largest city in the Bay Area? – but there is a reason. There are countries with 10 times the people, with economic might, a rich history in the game and talented players who have not matched Croatia’s achievements over the six World Cups in which they have competed.

Even aside from the magnificent Modric, this whole campaign had something of the feel of a coda after their brilliance in 2018. They were not quite good enough to beat the best in 120 minutes, but they could drive teams to frustration, knowing it is rarely a bad idea to trust players with their ball-striking excellence and composure under pressure to win a penalty shootout. 

We may not see the like again from Croatia. This was surely Modric’s last dance and it is hard to see his running mate Ivan Perisic returning to the world stage at 37. Even if the likes of Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic and Orsic make it to north America in 2026, they will likely be on the downslope of their career. There is of course young talent on the rise, most notably Gvardiol but also Luka Sucic, but there are only so many diamonds to be found in a nation of a few million. This might be it for Croatia at the very highest level. But then again, we did say that four years ago, and after their third-place finish in 1998 as well.