Vlasic and Ounahi denied as Morocco earn opening draw against Croatia

The 2018 finalists Croatia started their World Cup campaign with a 0-0 draw against Morocco, whose manager Walid Regragui said he was happy

The drums of the Morocco ultras behind the goal suggested the outcome had been favourable. A high‑tempo rat-a-tat-tat broke out on the final whistle, echoing the energy of the north Africans’ performance as they took a point from the 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia in an engaging goalless draw.

Quite what the result means for either side and their prospects for progression – in a group that, short of other options, has received the label “group of death” – remains to be seen. But for Morocco this was a moment to seize upon, while for Croatia it was not an occasion to overreact.

Clearcut chances were limited at the Al Bayt stadium, a venue once again offering the dissonant effect of a patchy crowd with a lusty atmosphere. Two moments either side of half-time were the best of them. First, the Morocco goalkeeper, Yassine Bounou, appeared like a bullet from the blue sky to keep out a poked effort from Nikola Vlasic. Second, Dominik Livakovic parried a Sofiane Boufal drive and then blocked a header from Azzedine Ounahi to keep the scores level.

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Croatia’s coach, Zlatko Dalic, was given a grilling afterwards and had to praise his opponents. They were “extremely well prepared and courageous”, he said, and speedy, too. But he did not think his team had been particularly at risk of defeat and should perhaps have been more direct in their approach towards goal.

For Walid Regragui, meanwhile, a standard had been set for his side to follow. “We played like a European team today and that’s why I’m so happy,” he said. “We managed to create chances but we played with a balance. We were solid and difficult to play through. The main thing is not to lose the first match and African teams often end up [doing that]. But Tunisia played well [in their draw with Denmark] and Senegal were unlucky to lose [against the Netherlands]. Gradually we improve. African teams need to be aware that we are elite teams, but we need to develop a winning mentality.”

Morocco and Croatia compete for the ball
Morocco’s energy deservedly earned a point against the 2018 World Cup finalists. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Regragui has been in his role for only three months but he comes with an impressive pedigree in a short career, winning the Qatari league with Al Duhail before claiming the African champions league with the Moroccan club Wydad.

He cut an impressive figure on Wednesday and his team played with exactly the strategic consistency he described. They also implemented the intensive counter‑pressing of top European teams, led by the nimble Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri, who troubled a Croatia backline that included the 33-year-old Dejan Lovren.

In the centre of the field Sofyan Amrabat led the way, throwing his weight into every challenge, enjoying his engagement with Luka Modric. Had the delivery of Achraf Hakimi been a bit better and had Hakim Ziyech conjured more magic than he was able to show – he was ultimately withdrawn because of injury – the result might have been different.

That is not to say that Croatia were outplayed, even if the 2018 runners‑up ultimately and obviously settled for a point. In Modric they had the man of the match, the 37-year-old making himself available for every one of the 100 minutes of this lunchtime contest way out in the Qatari desert.

“We were right when we said beforehand that they are a tricky team, a difficult team,” the Croatia captain said. “But we did not allow them to get too close.”

He then went on to echo the thoughts of his coach: “If we had a more proactive attitude maybe they would have opened up a bit more.”

Vlasic flattered to deceive and should really have taken his chance before he was replaced at the break by Atalanta’s Mario Pasalic. Mateo Kovacic, meanwhile, was withdrawn with 10 minutes to go, in a modest attempt to conjure a goal. There may also have been an element of preservation involved, though, with first Canada and then Belgium yet to come in Group F.

“Kovacic is someone we are counting on in the rest of tournament for sure,” Dalic said before emphasising the challenge of repeating the success of 2018. “This is another tournament, four years have passed, and Croatia has almost a whole new national team. We cannot draw comparisons between two generations of players. We know we have value and competence, we are prepared for further fights.

It’s going to be a difficult tournament, for sure, but we will not be deterred from our ambition. It’s another match tomorrow, another day and that’s it.”


Paul MacInnes at Al Bayt Stadium

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