Croatia matched their best-ever World Cup performance, emerging as the 2-1 winners of a vigorously contested third place match over the tournament’s darling, Morocco.
Third place games have often been said to be more open, positive affairs due to the relative lack of pressure, and both teams got right to work in this edition. Croatia took a sixth-minute lead with by far their earliest goal of the tournament, using a clever set piece routine.
Lovro Majer clipped a free kick in for Ivan Perisic, who was running away from goal. Perisic came up with a critical moment of misdirection, spinning at the last moment to guide his header back from where he came, and Joško Gvardiol was free to hurl himself at the ball, sending a diving header just barely inside Yassine Bounou’s right-hand post.
Not even two full minutes later, Morocco was level. Again it was a set piece, but it wasn’t exactly as well-designed as Croatia’s. Achraf Hakimi’s free kick from the right touchline was driven in over the one-man wall, but only as far as Luka Modrić.
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However, the pace on the service meant that Modrić’s attempt to head clear came late, sending the ball looping into the Croatian penalty area. Achraf Dari was first to react, nodding past Dominik Livaković from point-blank range.
Both teams had solid chances to follow, but just before halftime, Croatia nosed back in front. Again, there was an element of good fortune: Morocco seemed to have ended a Croatian attack, but just as the Atlas Lions were poised to move forward, Mateo Kovačić stepped up to win the ball back.
Marko Livaja was the beneficiary, and a quick shuffle of feet allowed him to slide the ball over to the left for Mislav Oršić, who shaped to swing the ball towards the back post.
What may have had the look of a potential cross was instead an audacious shot, with the Dinamo Zagreb forward curling a stunner into the upper corner.
As the game wore on, Croatia was having the better of play, but sent their opportunities wide or high. Their best chance was something that never amounted to anything, as Gvardiol went down after contact in the box with Sofyan Amrabat. Referees and VAR have both given penalty kicks for less at this World Cup, but in this one, Abdulrahman Al-Jassim played on much to Croatia’s chagrin.
Almost immediately thereafter, Youssef En-Nesyri had a chance out of nothing, as two Croatian defenders failed to defend a cross from the left. Unfortunately for En-Nesyri, Livaković proved equal to the task, getting a hand out quickly to keep Croatia ahead.
Morocco offered a late push as Croatia started to show some heavy legs, but with essentially the final touch of the match, En-Nesyri sent a promising header just inches over the crossbar.
For Croatia, it’s the second time they’ve finished in third place at a World Cup, matching their 1998 performance. Morocco, meanwhile, became the neutral’s favorite at this tournament, setting a new high water mark for the African continent and the Arab world by getting to the semifinal.