AL KHOR, Qatar (Reuters) – Croatia’s World Cup campaign got off to a stuttering start with a 0-0 draw against a battling Morocco on Wednesday as the 2018 runners-up lacked the punch and guile of the side that went so close in Russia.
Chances were at a premium at Al Bayt Stadium as an even Group F contest produced little goalmouth action and ended in the third goalless draw in nine games at the World Cup so far.
There were glimpses for both sides, with Nikola Vlasic going close for Croatia at the end of the first half while Noussair Mazraoui had a header saved for Morocco, but nobody could find the breakthrough as the mercury soared on an energy-sapping afternoon.
Croatia, who were beaten 4-2 by France in the final four years ago, will now turn their attentions to their game against Canada on Sunday, when Morocco will face Belgium. Canada and Belgium face off later on Wednesday.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic was far from downcast with how his side had performed, with his only criticism that they lacked bravery to take more of the fight to their opponents.
“We were very cautious not to make a mistake and were a bit indecisive,” he said. “I might say a bit of courage was missing on our side… but today Croatia had control and possession but not enough opportunities.”
Croatia’s best moments predictably hinged on Luka Modric, who was given the freedom of the park, floating effortlessly from back to front, with football’s traditional midfield roles seeming not to apply to Croatia’s captain.
One minute he was patrolling in front of his back four, the next hanging off the shoulder of Andrej Kramaric up front, but always looking to open up the North Africans, whether he was hovering at right back or hunting further forward.
‘WHAT A PLAYER’
Morocco coach Walid Regragui was over the moon that his side had prevented the Croatian schemer from wreaking too much havoc.
“Modric was unbelievable, what a player,” he said before declaring his satisfaction with a draw against Croatia, who he described as “one of the best teams in the competition.”
Yet this Croatia performance lacked the cut and thrust of the team four years ago, which also boasted the talents of the now-retired Mario Mandzukic up front and midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who has called time on his international career.
Morocco looked principally to Hakim Ziyech for inspiration and the Chelsea winger, recalled to the squad following Regragui’s appointment, was their most dangerous attacking outlet in the early stages, although his good work lacked an end product.
While the encounter was low on action it was at least high on intensity, as both sides battled for midfield supremacy, but the first half ended with neither goal really threatened until the closing moments when Vlasic’s low effort was saved by Yassine Bounou.
Borna Sosa’s cross to the near post found Vlasic, who poked out a leg to steer it towards goal, but he couldn’t beat Bounou.
There was more action in the first five minutes of the second half when Morocco had raucous appeals for a penalty waved away after Sofiane Boufal’s shot appeared to hit Dejan Lovren’s arm, seconds before Mazraoui’s header was saved by Dominik Livakovic.
Moments later, Lovren’s effort on the slide at the other end was blocked by Sofyan Amrabat, but that was about as good as it got for Croatia until centre back Josko Gvardiol’s header went wide in the 80th minute.
Morocco were perhaps the better side in the second half, but for all their efforts their only other chance of note was Achraf Hakimi’s swerving shot from distance that was punched away by Livakovic.
The two sides are likely to be happy with a point from a match in which there really was nothing to separate them, with both having seven attempts at goal and just two on target.
Reporting by Toby Davis, Editing by Christian Radnedge and Angus MacSwan