In the third-place playoff on Saturday at the Khalifa International Stadium, a World Cup 2022 bronze medal is on the line between Croatia and Morocco, and neither team should turn their back on a podium finish on the biggest platform.
Only a select few attackers have defeated RB Leipzig’s youth Josko Gvardiol in a face-off, but even one of the most in-demand defenders in Europe couldn’t stand a chance against a 35-year-old Lionel Messi.
Prior to humiliating a player 15 years his junior, Messi scored Argentina’s first goal in their semifinal match against Croatia from the penalty spot. Julian Alvarez then scored Argentina’s second goal, however it came with a bit of luck after a few ricochets.
Argentina’s third goal wasn’t by chance; Messi turned back the hands of time on the right side before finding Alvarez to tap in Argentina’s third and deprive Croatia a chance to play in a second straight World Cup final – against 2018 rivals France, no less.
Without winning a knockout game in regular time, Dalic’s team miraculously advanced to the 2018 final and the 2022 semifinals. They are also no strangers to bronze medal contests, having defeated the Netherlands 2-1 in the 1998 third-place playoff during their first World Cup campaign.
Croatia won’t be relieved to learn that the third-place playoff has never been decided on kicks, and the unrestrained Moroccan supporters will doubtless continue to beat their drums to the fullest for one last ride. Croatia has repeatedly demonstrated their prowess in extra time and penalty shootouts.
Morocco, the first African nation to play in a World Cup semifinal, could have made history by becoming the first team from the continent to advance all the way to the championship game, World Cup 2022 third-place match but for a lack of killer instinct in the final third.
In the Wednesday semi-final, Walid Regragui’s team certainly gave France some trouble, but Theo Hernandez’s acrobatic effort and Randal Kolo Muani’s tap-in 44 seconds after entering the field put an end to the Atlas Lions’ hopes of dominating Qatar.
The early retirement of the wounded trio Noussair Mazraoui, Romain Saiss, and Nayef Aguerd did not help the Africans’ efforts, but Morocco’s current crop will undoubtedly return to their hometown as national heroes and may even be carrying the bronze medals around their necks on the way home.
Regragui’s team could still become the first country to hold as many as five clean sheets at a single World Cup since Spain’s victorious team of 2010, even though Hernandez broke through their defense with barely five minutes remaining on Wednesday.
Just a few weeks after their goalless draw in Group F, where the Checkered Ones were limited to just five shots against Regragui’s backline, Croatia and Morocco will once again square off. A similarly tenacious defensive performance might propel the Africans to a historic World Cup victory.
The midfield pivot Marcelo Brozovic withdrew due to discomfort in the 50th minute of Croatia’s semi-final loss to Argentina, adding injury to insult. He is now seen as a serious doubt for the third-place playoff.
Dalic has vowed to not risk any player who is not 100 percent healthy, so Lovro Majer and Kristijan Jakic should be ready to step in for Brozovic in the middle if necessary. Twenty-year-old center-back Gvardiol need injections to play despite the pain of a foot injury in the middle of the week.
Gvardiol might be replaced by Josip Sutalo, a different highly regarded center defender, while Ivan Perisic, a Tottenham Hotspur player who is now tied with Davor Suker in World Cup goals scored with six each, should keep his position on the left.
Josip Juranovic, the right back, was also unable to participate in Friday’s practice, World Cup 2022 third-place match thus Josip Stanistic might have to step in for his injured colleague.
Regarding Morocco, Regragui unexpectedly managed to get all of Aguerd, Mazraoui, and Saiss back for their semi-final, but the injured trio withdrew one at a time — in Aguerd’s case, just before the game began.
Saiss was also taken off after 20 minutes after being outpaced by Olivier Giroud for speed, and he has been ruled out. Mazraoui also left the game before the halftime break, putting Regragui back where he began in terms of injuries.
Regragui is unlikely to risk playing Mazraoui or Aguerd on Saturday, thus a return to the 4-3-3 formation may be necessary as Yahia Attiyat Allah and Selim Amallah try to regain their starting spots.
Livakovic, Stanisic, Lovren, Gvardiol, Sosa, Modric, Jakic, Kovacic, Vlasic, Kramaric, and Perisic are potential starters for Croatia.
Bono, El-Yamiq, Dari, Attiyat-Allah, Ounahi, Amrabat, and Amallah are all potential starters for Morocco, along with Ziyech, En-Nesyri, and Boufal.
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