By GERALD IMRAY – AP Sportswriter
AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) – Another surprisingly strong performance by an Arab country at the World Cup in Qatar has smothered the threat of Luka Modric, beating 2018 finalists Croatia 0-0.
Morocco’s strong performance on Wednesday came 24 hours after Saudi Arabia launched the first World Cup in the Middle East by beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina in one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.
Tunisia followed with a goalless draw against EURO semi-finalists Denmark.
Morocco managed enough to rein in Croatia captain Modric, who was still the best player on his team in Group F’s opener and had one of the best chances when his first-half shot went just over the bar. Dejan Lovran shot from a corner in the second half and Sofyan Amrabat cleared from the line for Morocco to keep the tie.
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“It was a difficult game, especially in the first 15 minutes,” said Modric. He said Croatia “missed something up front”.
Modric didn’t have nearly the same impact as during the last World Cup in Russia, leading Croatia to their first final before losing to France.
This was mainly due to Morocco, who harassed and harassed the Croatians at every turn, aided by their red-clad fans, who were outnumbered and making a lot more noise than the Croatian fans.
“They played their hearts out. I congratulate them on that,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic. “They showed a really energetic game and had great support.”
37-year-old Modric is playing in his fourth and likely final World Cup, looking to add an international title to his trophy-rich career at Real Madrid.
Four years ago he was voted the best player of the World Cup to great acclaim. When he was then named player of the match on Wednesday, it was greeted by a burst of boos from Moroccan fans, who chanted and twirled scarves in the final minutes at Al Bayt Stadium.
Paris Saint-Germain defender Achraf Hakimi had Morocco’s best chance when goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic saved a shot with both fists in the second half.
The result was a big boost in confidence for Morocco and coach Walid Regragui, who was only signed at the end of August – his first international coaching job – and had less than three months to prepare the team for Qatar.
“We played against the runners-up at the last World Cup,” said Regragui. “I’m so proud of the boys. I’m proud of the men.”
Brilliant as he is, Modric is now closer to 40 than 30 and will need more help from his team if Croatia hopes to reach another World Cup final. Forwards Ivan Perisic and Nikola Vlasic were not the expected threat against Morocco and Vlasic had to be replaced injured in the second half.
“We didn’t just come here to compete,” said Modric. “Based on our Russian experience, we have ambitions to do the same or even better. But even before this tournament, we said that the primary goal would be to get through the group stage first.”
There were serious concerns that Regragui’s lack of international experience and time to prepare the Moroccan team could result in another early exit. Morocco have only progressed through the group stage once at a World Cup, back in 1986. But Regragui’s side played well together, although Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech did not perform as well as expected on the right wing.
Morocco and Regragui face another big test in their next game against second-placed Belgium in a tough Group F. Croatia expects a win against Canada.
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