Morocco, Africa’s surprise team at the 2022 FIFA World Cup here in Qatar, will this evening take on Croatia in the third place match in a reminiscent of the Balkan nation’s success run at the last edition of the Mundial in Russia four years ago.
The Atlas Lions have not only surprised themselves and their teeming supporters in Qatar but have punched above their weight in continental football.
Their first meeting in Group F here at this tournament ended in a stalemate. The two nations’ only other meeting was also a draw, 2-2 in Casablanca in 1996 – though Croatia prevailed 7-6 on penalties. So their second time meeting with Croatia is bound to produce a winner this evening with the winner of the third place match going home with $27million!
Will Coach Zlatko Dalic who led his wards to the final against France in Russia four years ago allow the Atlas Lions smile away with the third position ranking in this first tournament in the Middle East? Or is it going to be this illustrious Ambassadors of Africa and the Arab worlds that will win what we in Nigeria have tagged “Golden Bronze”?
To get to this penultimate match of Qatar 2022, Morocco defeated Belgium and Canada in the group stage before eliminating 2010 world champions Spain on penalties in the last 16 and then also triumphed over 2016 European champions Portugal in the quarter-finals.
Morocco’s dream run has wiped the tears of Russia 2018 for African teams who all left the tournament in the Group Stage. It this new reality that is making Croatia ‘s gaffer, Dalic, to become cautious of the Lions ahead of this evening’s game at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. “They (Morocco) deserve to be here. They will be a more challenging opponent than in the first match,” observed Dalic yesterday.
“They have grown in self-confidence and are motivated. For both it is a huge and major match.”
Croatia and Morocco had drawn 0-0 in the group stage before both advanced to the knockout stage.
“For us it is a major match. We have a lot of respect for the Moroccan team. I think they have the same mindset as us. It is a huge match for them as well. They will come up with a major lineup.”
Croatia have several injury concerns with Josko Gvardiol, Marcelo Brozovic and Josip Juranovic doubtful but Dalic said he would take a decision at the last minute.
“This is the seventh match in a month and we are a bit tired and drained. We have some issues with (Josko) Gvardiol, (Josip) Juranovic and (Marcelo) Brozovic. We will see what will happen. We have to be cautious.
“We need to be fair and if someone is not 100% fit we need to talk about it.”
Morocco’s coach, Walid Regragui who is battling with lots of injuries since the semi final on Wednesday night, has promised to give opportunities to players who have not played the tournament today. He however insisted that the Atlas Lions are not where they wish to be yet. Regragui attributed the fairytale run to hard work and not miracles. He insisted that the World Cup can’t be won by miracles but with hardwork the only solution to becoming the best side.
“To reach the very, very highest level, to win a World Cup, we still have to work but we are not very far away.”
Croatia have yet to concede a goal against African opposition at the FIFA World Cup, wins against Cameroon (4-0 in 2014) and Nigeria (2-0 in 2018) preceding this year’s stalemate against Morocco.