Croatia claim narrow win over Morocco in World Cup third-place playoff

Croatia edged to a close-fought 2-1 victory over Morocco on Saturday to ensure a third-place finish at the World Cup in Qatar.

Defender Josko Gvardiol, who has been one of the standout players at the tournament, scored a header on seven minutes to hand Croatia an early lead, but Morocco fired back shortly after through a close-range header from defender Achraf Dari in what was his first international goal.

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Morocco are the only African team in World Cup history to reach this stage of the competition, but they were consigned to a fourth-place finish as Croatia winger Mislav Orsic netted a superb curled effort on 42 minutes that proved to be the winner.

Croatia finished runners-up in Russia four years ago and were hoping for an unlikely return to the final in Qatar but saw their tournament end on Tuesday in a 3-0 semifinal defeat to Argentina. Croatia previously finished third in their first-ever World Cup appearance in 1998.

"This is bronze with a golden glow. We won a tough game," said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, who also led the nation of just 4 million people to their runners-up finish in Russia four years ago.

"This is a medal for the Croatian people... It's really great that we won two medals in two tournaments, big congratulations to my players."

There were signs of nerves from Morocco early on with goalkeeper Yassine Bounou nearly scything a clearance into his own goal in just the third minute.

Croatia started the game on the front foot and took the lead in the seventh minute through a cleverly worked set-piece. A cross floated into the box found Ivan Perisic who expertly headed the ball into the mix where Gvardiol bravely dived in for the header to silence the Moroccan fans.

However, the lead was short-lived as just two minutes later, Morocco responded at the other end with a set piece of their own when a cross came off Lovro Majer's head and looped into the box where an unmarked Dari beat the goalkeeper with a header.

Emboldened by the equaliser, Morocco began to find chinks in the Croatian defence, with their movement and passing helping to create several chances. But the African side lacked the killer instinct in front of goal.

Croatia followed up their second place finish in Russia in 2018 with third place in Qatar.
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Croatia duly punished them in the 42nd minute when an interception in the final third found Orsic, whose curling shot arced beautifully from a tight angle past the outstretched arm of Yassine Bounou before going in off the post.

The second half was not as fast or feisty as the first as exhaustion after a long tournament seemed to have caught up with both teams, playing their seventh game in Qatar.

Croatia's Andrej Kramaric even left the pitch in tears with what looked like a thigh injury while goal scorer Dari also hobbled off having opted to continue playing after the restart despite struggling at the end of the first half.

By the 67th minute, Morocco had made all five of their substitutions. With Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd benched, Jawad El Yamiq became their fourth centre-back to bid the tournament goodbye when he came off.

"Physically it was difficult, our players got tired, it was intense," Morocco coach Walid Regragui said.

Croatia also felt hard done by when Gvardiol looked to have been tripped in the box by Sofyan Amrabat -- now playing in defence with their centre backs injured -- but the referee refused to award a penalty.

Mateo Kovacic could have put the game to bed for Croatia in the 87th minute when through on goal but shot wide while Youssef En-Nesyri came close when he headed over in stoppage time.

But despite Morocco's best efforts to find an equaliser, Croatia held on for victory and the bronze, matching the feat of their heroes from 1998 who also finished third.

"We wanted to please our fans. We're still happy, we're among the four best teams in the world," Regragui said.

"We provided everyone with a good show, we never gave up. Congratulations to Croatia, they deserve their third place."