The Atlas Lions of Morocco cannot win the World Cup in Qatar, but they have already won several hearts across the world with their historic run at this year’s Mundial.
Proudly the first African team to make it as far as the semi-final at the World Cup, the Atlas Lions are seeking to roar one more time in Qatar when they take on Croatia in the Third place match on Saturday at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Interestingly, the two teams already tested themselves earlier in Qatar, as Croatia and Morocco were both housed in Group F in the first round.
In that opening group game, the Atlas Lions showed a glimpse of their defensive prowess; reducing the Checkered Ones to just five attempts and a similarly closely knitted defensive display could set the Africans on their way to a groundbreaking World Cup honour.
Both Morocco and Croatia ruffled feathers to even make it to the losers’ final with the former beating the likes of Belgium, Spain and Portugal in a remarkable run while the latter was responsible for eliminating firm favourites, Brazil in the race for the trophy.
Though playing in the final would have been the preferred choice for Croatia and Morocco, no one expects either of the two teams to treat the third-place match with kid gloves.
“We would like things to have gone differently and played in the final,” said Morocco head coach Walid Regragui.
“There is another game to play. We would like to be on the podium.
“I understand it’s important to finish third rather than fourth, but my takeaway is we didn’t reach the final. We wanted to play the final on Sunday, not play tomorrow (Saturday).
“But I told my players this is our seventh World Cup game. If you told any Morocco fan we would be playing our seventh game on 17 December, they would be proud.
“Morocco played six World Cup games in 20-odd years and now we’ve played six games in a month – this is priceless. It’s as if we played two World Cups or even more, that’s beautiful from an experience point of view.”
While this is obviously an unfamiliar terrain for Morocco who barely made it out of the groups in previous editions of the World Cup, Zlatko Dalic’s side have been there and done that before.
Aside from remarkably reaching 2018 final, Croatia are not complete novices in bronze medal matches, having beaten the Netherlands 2-1 in the 1998 third-placed playoff during their inaugural World Cup campaign.
Dalic says his side are looking to end the tournament on a high in what he sees as a “huge match”.
“For us, this is a major final, a major match and a fight for a medal,” he stated
“We have a lot of respect for the Moroccan team, who achieved a lot at this tournament and are a true surprise.
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“They are of the same mindset. It is a huge match for them as well, they are coming with a strong line-up and we are not thinking about what the rivals are saying because we are well aware they are fighting for the same place and, for both, it is a huge match.
“Morocco resembles us from four years ago, no one expected them to go so far. They have deserved to be where they are. They have matured and developed and went to a higher level with every game. They have grown into a team that are full of energy and self-motivated.
“They are definitely the most pleasant and biggest surprise from this World Cup, speaking of teams who could have done better – Spain, Germany, Netherlands, England – Italy did not even qualify. This is a specific World Cup where a third-place play-off is played by two nations who were not favourites.”
Many would be keen to see how Croatia and Morocco would bounce back from their respective 3-0 and 2-0 losses to Argentina and France to finish on a high and avoid returning home empty-handed, having done quite well in Qatar.
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