Morocco, buoyed by the Saudi Arabian giant-killing act the previous afternoon, started its Group F encounter with gusto, unperturbed by the searing sun seeping through the tent domes of the Al Bayt stadium.
The Croatians, last edition’s runners-up, naturally were left panting, less accustomed to the 27-degree heat, as Luka Modric and his olden companions found it hard to deal with the pace of the red stallions. But both teams eventually ran out of steam, settling for a goalless impasse.
Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi from Paris Saint-Germain were the liveliest on the field, troubling Zlatko Dalic’s men with their clever movement and constant changing of positions.
There, however, was hardly any goal threat, and the veteran Dejan Lovren dug deep into his youth to rush back and clear the ball after a cheeky chip from Sofiyan Amrabat saw Youssef En-Nesyri make a run behind the Croatian defence in the 25th minute.
The experienced Croatians picked their pace as Morocco slowed down with the first half nearing its end. It was Andrej Kramaric who slipped a pass inside the box from wide left, and Nikola Vlasic’s toe poke was kept out by the outstretched leg of goalkeeper Yassine Bounou. Two minutes later it was Nayef Aguerd blocking an effort from Marceloa Brozovic’s shot; Modric’s flier from the loose ball coming nowhere close to the intended target.
Five minutes into the restart, despite the insistence of the drum-beating Morocco supporters and their players, the referee ignored a strong penalty call against Lovren when Sofiane Boufa’s shot hit his arm inside the box. Croatia countered to earn a corner. Modric’s swinging ball was kept out by a one-handed push from Bounou and then some last-ditch scramble saved Morocco the blushes and the referee, who didn’t stop play to check on a grounded Mazraoui near the other goal post, from the crowd’s anger.
The energy dipped further, and Azzedine Ounah’s swirling freekick in the 64th minute, parried away by Dominik Livakovic, briefly roused the crowd from its slumber. Josko Gvardiol’s header in the 79th minute also went wide as both teams struggled without a quality No. 9.
This was a colourless game in a colourful stadium – with its half dome with Arabic patterns and the rows of red Moroccan fans merging with the empty red chairs – raising worries of more such encounters in the next 48-team jamboree.