If Croatia are to match the heroics of four years ago in Russia in Qatar, they will have to make their own bit of history after opening their tournament here with a frustrating stalemate with Morocco.
The Croatians have now failed to win their opening match of a World Cup on four of their six appearances. Following the other three they failed to make it out of their group.
Losing finalists last go around, Luka Modric and co. have high hopes again and with many of the heroes of that famous run suiting up one more time for a last dance, there is still every chance they could do it. But this result, a 0-0 at the Al Bayt Stadium to begin Group F, and the performance to go with it was far from what they were looking for. Indeed it will be group rivals Belgium and Canada who are happiest with the outcome here.
Played out in blazing afternoon sun it was hardly surprising for the tempo of this one to be set early by Croatia, their ever-dependable midfield trio taking charge and controlling things from the middle. At the heart of it was Modric, playing what will surely be his final major tournament of a glittering career, still the arch metronome he has always been, seemingly dictating the pace of everything around him without any remote concern, his otherworldly powers somehow also extending to ensure he avoided any further action for a number of mistimed challenges in defence. Ivan Perisic, a star four years ago, arrowed over with a speculative long-range effort as they pushed to add some potency to their early possession.
Morocco’s best moments of a largely uneventful first half came, predictably, through the returning Hakim Ziyech, the Chelsea wide man now back in from the cold under new coach Walid Regragui. A blocked snap shot and dangerous whipped cross in the early exchanges hinted at where their main threat would come. A free kick within shooting range 25 yards out was wastefully hit straight at the wall.
With both sides struggling for a final pass – an emerging theme from a number of tighter contests to open this tournament – the half burst into life with two chances within minutes before the break with West Ham forward Nikola Vlasic at the heart of both.
First, a clever run to the near post was found by left back Borna Sosa only for goalkeeper Yassine Bounou to react well to keep out before a blocked shot, again from Vlasic, fell kindly for Modric on the edge of the box only for a stinging drive to rise just beyond the crossbar.
With the rising noise from the stands belying another swathe empty seats at this most remote of the host venues and home of Sunday’s infamous tournament opener, the game’s action picked up to match it. The seas of red and green behind the goal screamed for a penalty when Sofiane Boufal’s goalbound shot appeared to cannon off a Croatian arm after the interval before Croatia themselves threatened at the other end with Achraf Hakimi acting swiftly to clear.
The Moroccan support, who added an Icelandic thunderclap to their expanding repertoire as the contest progressed in a bid to add more life, saw their team respond with Youssef En-Nesyri failing to connect with a flat ball across, before Hakimi drew the sharpest save of the afternoon from Dominik Livakovic with a curling effort from a well-worked free kick.
Perhaps spurred on by the efforts of Saudi Arabia and Tunisia on Tuesday, Morocco pressed for what would have been a famous winner but with all too fleeting end product to go with their admirable energy it was to no avail. The Atlas Lions, and their fans who continued to sing until the very end, will still be more than happy, however, with a point gained in their bid to reach the last-16 for the first time in 36 years.
For Croatia, though, a missed opportunity. They must hope now better is to come or another stay at a World Cup could be short once again.