Few have fancied Croatia to repeat their odds-defying 2018 run to the World Cup final in Qatar, but one hurdle they were definitely expected to clear was their opening group game against Morocco on Wednesday.
Only four players from the defeat to France in the final started on Wednesday after coach Zlatko Dalic’s rebuild fused Croatia’s experienced core of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisic with a talented new generation led by Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic.
However, their desperate lack of a reliable goalscorer is a problem that has existed since Mario Mandzukic’s retirement four years ago and was laid bare again at the Al Bayt Stadium in a cagey stalemate against a resolute Morocco side.
“This is another tournament, four years have passed (and) we have almost a whole new national team with new players. You cannot draw a comparison,” Dalic told reporters.
Midfield maestro Modric was unable to dictate play as much as he normally would but he still drifted tirelessly all over the pitch and picked his moments to inject some urgency into his team’s attack.
Croatia dominated possession and did not look flustered under pressure from Morocco, patiently biding their time before springing to life in the first half stoppage time and went closest through Nikola Vlasic’s toe-poked effort.
The midfielder was replaced at halftime due to an apparent injury, however, and Croatia again made a slow start while Morocco emerged the better side in the second half, but the contest was largely played in the middle third of the pitch.
Croatia had netted 21 goals during their World Cup qualifying campaign but Modric, Perisic and Pasalic top-scored with three goals each in the absence of a dependable centre forward.
Next up was Andrej Kramaric with two, but goals have dried up for the Hoffenheim forward in the Bundesliga this season, while Bruno Petkovic is less prolific and has been inconsistent since the European Championship.
Finding a solution to their attacking woes will be crucial for Dalic despite their success in Russia, as Croatia did not win a knockout game in the last tournament and needed extra-time twice to progress to the showdown with France.
Croatia are perennially slow starters at soccer’s showpiece tournament, having lost the opening game in three of their previous five appearances – the exceptions being 1998 and 2018, when they finished third and runner-up, respectively.
To get there again, they will need to find a clinical edge against Canada and then second-ranked Belgium in their other games but after firing blanks against Morocco, bookmakers will feel vindicated in having them as outsiders in Qatar.
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