Recent history suggests that the outcome of Croatia’s World Cup Group F opener against Morocco on Wednesday will provide a good indication of the team’s potential at Qatar 2022.
In three of their five World Cup appearances, Croatia has lost their opening match, and on those occasions, they failed to advance out of the group stage.
In the two exceptions, they finished in the final four, with Zlatko Dali leading Croatia to the final four years ago, where they ultimately lost to France.
While they may have been a bit “Jekyll and Hyde” in the past, there is undeniably an underlying sense of confidence ahead of Qatar’s opening match against Morocco at Al Bayt Stadium, the site of Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Ecuador.
The majority of the 2018 squad is no longer in the picture, but they qualified with relative ease and topped a Nations League group containing France and Denmark earlier this season.
“We just need to take it game by game,” striker Marko Livaja said.
“Our focus must be on the game against Morocco, in which we’ll need to give our all, and I believe we have excellent odds of repeating what we did in Russia.”
Andrej Kramari added, “We have quality, and we can repeat the result from Russia, but it’s foolish to discuss and proclaim it.
“It is crucial that we pass the group, and then we’ll observe what transpires.”
However, Morocco will be confident in their ability to cause a stir after a dominant qualification campaign.
The Atlas Lions won all six games in the second round of the CAF section, scoring 20 goals and allowing just one, which were both second best in the round.
In the third and final stage of qualifying, they defeated the Democratic Republic of Congo 5-2 on aggregate, becoming the only team to advance with a victory margin of more than one goal.
Their World Cup record is not spectacular, as they have only escaped their group once (1986) in five previous qualification matches.
Nonetheless, this will be their second consecutive appearance at the tournament, a feat they have only accomplished once before, and head coach Walid Regragui possesses a wealth of talent.
Hakim Ziyech, who reminded everyone what he is capable of with an outrageous goal from inside his own half in last week’s 3-0 pre-tournament win over Georgia, is arguably the most notable.
The Chelsea midfielder, who has rejoined the team after falling out with the previous coach, will be a key leader on the field and rallied the troops prior to the match against Croatia.
“We know what we must do to make everyone proud,” he said on the official YouTube channel for Morocco. “I believe this is an opportunity for everyone to demonstrate what we are capable of as a team and as a nation.
“We are appropriately preparing. I believe we were competitive against Georgia. Within the team, there is a positive atmosphere.”
Youssef En-Nesyri is a player to watch for Morocco.
While many eyes will be on Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi, Youssef En-Nesyri will carry a significant portion of the goal-scoring burden. Whether or not he can handle this pressure is an open question.
The striker scored against Georgia last week, but the Sevilla player has been out of form for the past year and a half. His four non-penalty goals in 33 La Liga games since the beginning of last season are significantly less than his 7.2 expected non-penalty goals (xG) return.
He has World Cup experience, however, and hopes to become the first Moroccan player to score at two different tournaments after scoring in Russia four years ago.
Croatia: Marcelo Brozović
Dali has repeatedly stated that Croatia will concentrate on exploiting their greatest strength: the midfield.
In the past four years, Brozovi has established himself as one of Europe’s top deep-lying playmakers, and his work allows Luka Modric to move up slightly.
Brozovi has averaged the third-most successful passes (60.1) and the fourth-most interceptions (1.7) per 90 minutes among Serie A midfielders this season (minimum 350 minutes played), demonstrating his ability on and off the ball despite missing a significant portion of the season with Inter due to injury.
Although Morocco has players capable of challenging Croatia, the latter are unsurprising clear favorites in this matchup.
Despite their inconsistent track record in World Cup openers, Dali’s squad has a 47.8% chance of opening their campaign with a victory, according to our supercomputer.
The likelihood of a draw is 27.4%, while the likelihood of a Morocco victory is 24.8%. Still, it does show that the Atlas Lions have a good chance of doing something.