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world cup match preview: Morocco Vrs Croatia

After opening with a 2-0 loss for hosts Qatar, the Al Bayt Stadium’s second FIFA World Cup outing sees Morocco launch another attempt to better their all-time best run, when they reached the Round of 16 (R16) back in 1986, and became the first African nation to top a World Cup group. But having finished bottom of their 2018 group with one point, the odds are stacked against former Moroccan international Walid Regragui’s men despite a run of seven internationals without defeat (W5, D2).

A number of them were not born the last time a homegrown coach led the team in a World Cup finals back in 1994, while some – such as Ligue 1 and Serie A title winner Achraf Hakimi – were even unborn the last time their nation took three World Cup points back in June 1998! The success in question (3-0 vs Scotland) is a memorable one, but Morocco’s all-time record vs active UEFA nations currently in FIFA’s top-40 remains very bleak (W8, D9, L18).

Thanks mainly to golden boot winner Davor Šuker, Croatia took the bronze medal in that same ‘France 98’ tournament. Not letting retirement stop him, his appointment of current coach Zlatko Dalić during a nine-year spell as Croatian Football Federation president (2012-2021) also fuelled a surge in fortunes, leading to second place at ‘Russia 2018’.

Led on-field by Russia 2018’s official ‘Best Player’ and reliable captain Luka Modrić, Croatia’s high sense of self-esteem has been most recently sustained by them reaching the 2023 UEFA Nations League finals earlier this year, after finishing Group A1 with four wins. So there will be much determination, especially with half of the 12 outfield players used in their 4-2 grand final defeat to France four years ago travelling to Qatar alongside coach Dalić.

Modrić also reached 150 caps back in June, making him the second-most capped European in Qatar behind Cristiano Ronaldo. His experience will surely be crucial if 12th-ranked Croatia have any chance of contributing to a trend going back 16 years, where the three podium places have consistently been locked out by teams starting their respective tournaments in FIFA’s top-20.

Players to watch: Do good things come in small packages? At just 5’2, Morocco’s Ilias Chair is the shortest player at the tournament. While the QPR man has just one international goal to his name, which he netted back in October 2021, fellow Londoner Ivan Perišić is the Croatians’ top gun with 32 international strikes. Spurs’ summer arrival may well end up flying high in the desert, having once plied his trade as a professional Beach Volleyball player!

Hot stat: None of Croatia’s five prior World Cup openers (W2, L3) have ended level.

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