Croatia fell well short of expectations as they produced an unimaginative performance in a 0-0 draw by Morocco in their World Cup Group F opener on Wednesday.
Zlatko Dalic’s men – the runners-up four years ago – were strong favourites at Al Bayt Stadium but crafted few opportunities of note, the stalemate handing the early initiative to Belgium ahead of their clash with Canada.
In the stands, Croatia were so outnumbered they essentially resembled an away team, but Morocco’s superior backing did not translate in to on-pitch dominance and were lucky to still be level at the break after Nikola Vlasic went close.
Dejan Lovren saw another reasonable chance go begging early in the second half, but otherwise Croatia failed to take advantage of their considerably greater share of possession.
Initially Croatia struggled to cope with the intensity of Morocco’s pressing, but the Atlas Lions did not possess the quality to convert their bluster into meaningful chances.
Neither side had a great deal of joy in that regard.
However, on the stroke of half-time Morocco were grateful for the intervention of goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who crucially blocked Vlasic’s prodded effort from point-blank range after Borna Sosa passed into the danger zone.
That proved a teaser of the improved action to follow early in the second half.
It began with Dominik Livakovic keeping out a Noussair Mazraoui header, and a few minutes later Sofyan Amrabat made a vital block to stop Lovren picking out the bottom-left corner.
In the end, Morocco’s deep defence ultimately got the better of Croatia’s blunt attack as they held on to a commendable point.
What does it mean? Toothless Croatia give Belgium the upper hand
Croatia were really disappointing here, but at least they were not on the end of a shock defeat.
After all, when Croatia lose their opening game at a World Cup, things tend not to go well: they lost on matchday one in three of their five previous World Cup appearances, with the exceptions being 1998 and 2018, when they reached the semi-finals and final, respectively.
Nevertheless, Croatia are in a group that always had the potential to be tight. They will have wanted to avoid giving likely qualification rivals Belgium any help, but in their toothlessness here, Roberto Martinez’s men already have the upper hand.
Hakimi shows his class
In truth, this was a match desperately short on quality. However, Achraf Hakimi did stand out for his work rate and solidity, winning all three of his tackle attempts, producing a team-high three interceptions and coming out on top in 10 of his 16 duel involvements – both were match highs. Ivan Perisic was very, very quiet as a result.
Modric unable to inspire creativity
Only one Croatia player managed to record a key pass, and that was Sosa. It highlighted just how lacking they were in the creative department. Luka Modric saw plenty of the ball but that did not lead to a great deal – he was mystifyingly given the Player of the Match award.
Key Opta Facts
– Croatia failed to score for the first time in 12 World Cup matches, since what was their only other goalless draw in the competition against Japan in 2006.
– Morocco have failed to score in 53 per cent of their World Cup matches (9/17), the joint-highest percentage of any nation to have played in more than 10 games in the competition.
– Three of the last four games at the World Cup have finished 0-0, more goalless draws than there were in the previous 73 matches in the competition combined (2).
– At 45 minutes and 12 seconds, Nikola Vlasic’s saved attempt for Croatia was the latest first shot on target in a match at the 2022 World Cup so far.
Morocco face group favourites Belgium on Sunday, while Croatia take on Canada.