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World Cup: Morocco’s mistakes in Qatar surfaced at the worst time

12:40 GMT+4 18/12/2022
Morocco Croatia World Cup 2022
The Atlas Lions could not claim a medal after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat by Croatia in the third-place playoff.

After what produced one of this World Cup’s seven goalless encounters, little was expected when Croatia faced off with Morocco in Saturday’s third-place playoff in a rematch of their opening group game.

Both sides had endured disappointment in their respective semi-finals: Vatreni missing out on successive finals after making the 2018 decider, while the Atlas Lions somehow fell to a 2-0 loss against defending world champions France despite making most of the plays in the semis.

What we got was an unexpected three-goal encounter, with Zlatko Dalic’s crew claiming a 2-1 win. That result brought about more displeasure for the North African nation that could have claimed bronze in Qatar.

Walid Regragui’s team already made history becoming the first African nation to make it to the last four but still wanted to go one better despite dreams of an unprecedented final going up in smoke against Les Blues.

“We really, really pushed our players to their limits but they still want to go out and play again,” said the 47-year-old before the game. “We are going to be taking risks again.”

Morocco certainly did not play like a team that felt sorry for themselves on Saturday, edging the play at the Khalifa International Stadium in a 2-1 loss.

The Expected Goals (xG) in favour of the African side – 1.19-0.65 – shows they created enough chances to win the game, with Youssef En-Nesyri missing two opportunities after half-time. The second, a header at the death, raised hopes of forcing extra time but it was not to be.

Again, similar to their semi-final loss, avoidable errors undermined their prospects of claiming third spot on Saturday. A glance at both Croatia goals shows how the first came about after an outstanding set-piece routine that was finished by Josko Gvardiol while the second was stunningly scored by Mislav Orsic with the break approaching.

A closer look, though, reveals how Abdelhamid Sabiri and Sofyan Amrabat were caught flat-footed. Sabiri was slow to react to Ivan Perisic’s pre-planned run to meet Lovro Majer's lofted free-kick, and Amrabat did not respond to Gvardiol’s movement having been a touch tight to the centre-back moments prior.

Admittedly, Croatia perhaps ought to be credited with that opening strike for the rehearsed routine, but Regragui must have been disappointed by how easy it was to concede after seven minutes. A swift response followed with Achraf Dari levelling about a minute after Gvardiol scored.

However, the concession of what turned out to be Orsic’s 42nd-minute winner was somewhat gifted to the European nation.

A potentially menacing attack that ended on Croatia’s right flank had been seemingly snuffed out by Bilal El Khannouss. But the debuting midfielder took a heavy touch after recovering possession from Lovro Majer, with Amrabat — probably unaware of Mateo Kovacic preparing to pounce on any gaffe — not intervening.

It proved costly as Kovacic’s interception fell to Marko Livaja who then passed to Orsic to score one of the competition’s best goals. 2-1 Croatia.

The Atlas Lions may have been parsimonious on their run to the semis but found themselves chasing a deficit for the third time in the space of four days after going the entire competition without conceding the first goal.

As Dalic told his troops to stay composed, Regragui knew his side faced an uphill task, especially after a half that was intermittently error-laden.

Aside from the goals conceded, Yassine Bounou almost putting the ball in his net after two minutes beggared belief and the Sevilla goalkeeper almost made a hash of Luka Modric’s shot after 24 minutes, before vitally reacting to parry the ball away from Orsic who was set to score from two yards.

Seconds preceding that, Achraf Hakimi had failed to control a loose ball inside his box, Jawad El Yamiq left a pass short and Yahia Attiyat Allah’s weak clearance was straight at Majer.

The game state meant those mistakes were reduced in the second half as the Moroccans’ defensive actions significantly reduced after the break. But the damage had probably been done.

Morocco’s best chances to score fell to the right man in En-Nesyri, too, yet the Sevilla striker was thwarted by Dominik Livakovic on one occasion and he could not score the game’s final opportunity.

Effectively undermined by lapses in concentration and individual mistakes for Croatia’s goals, the Atlas Lions could not take their opportunities at the other end either.

Having been at their defensive best on their historic run whilst taking advantage of the few chances they got in attack, Morocco’s failure in key moments in both boxes ultimately cost them a dream final and third spot within four days.