AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — Another surprisingly strong performance by an Arab country at the World Cup in Qatar stifled the threat of Luka Modric and held 2018 finalist Croatia to a 0-0 draw.
Morocco’s resilient performance came 24 hours after Saudi Arabia sparked the first World Cup in the Middle East into life by beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina in one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.
Tunisia followed that up with a scoreless draw against European Championship semifinalist Denmark.
Morocco managed to do enough to rein in Croatia captain Modric, who was still his team's best player in their Group F opener and had one of the best chances when his shot just rose over the crossbar in the first half. Dejan Lovran got a shot off at a corner in the second half and Sofyan Amrabat cleared off the line for Morocco to preserve the draw.
“It was a difficult game, especially in the first 15 minutes,” Modric said. He said Croatia “missed something up front.”
Modric didn't have nearly the same kind of impact he had throughout the last World Cup in Russia when he led Croatia to its first final before losing to France.
That was largely down to Morocco, who harassed and harried the Croatians at every turn, buoyed by their red-shirted fans, who outnumbered and made much more noise than the Croatian supporters.
“They played their hearts out. I congratulate them on that,” said Croatia coach Zlaatko Dalic. “They had a really energetic game and they had great support.”
The 37-year-old Modric is playing in his fourth and what’s expected to be his final World Cup, where he’s looking to add an international title to his trophy-laden career with Real Madrid.
He was voted best player at the World Cup four years ago to wide acclaim. When he was then announced as player of the match on Wednesday, it was greeted by an outburst of boos from Morocco fans who had chanted and whirled scarves as they jumped up and down in the final minutes at Al Bayt Stadium.
Paris Saint-Germain defender Achraf Hakimi had the best chance for Morocco with a thumping second-half shot punched away with both fists by goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
The result was a major confidence-booster for Morocco and coach Walid Regragui, who was only hired at the end of August — his first international coaching job — and had less than three months to prepare the team for Qatar.
“We were playing against the runners up for the last World Cup,” Regragui said. "I'm so proud of the boys. I'm proud of the men."
MORE THAN MODRIC
As brilliant as he is, Modric is closer to 40 than 30 now and will need more help from his team if Croatia is going to get to another World Cup final. Forwards Ivan Perisic and Nikola Vlasic weren’t the threats they were expected to be against Morocco and Vlasic went off injured in the second half.
“We haven’t come here just to compete,” Modric said. On the basis of our Russian experience we have ambitions to do the same or even better. But even before that tournament we said let’s first set a primary objective of getting past the group stage.”
There were serious concerns that Regragui’s lack of international experience and time to prepare the Morocco team would result in another early exit. Morocco has only got past the group stage once at a World Cup, back in 1986. But Regragui’s team was well drilled, even if Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech didn’t play as well as expected on the right wing.
Morocco and Regragui have another huge test in their next game against No. 2-ranked Belgium in a tough Group F. Croatia will expect a win against Canada.