Previewing Croatia’s Third-Place Game in the 2022 World Cup originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
It’s not completely over yet for Croatia.
The Vatreni suffered elimination after falling 3-0 to Lionel Messi and Argentina in the semifinal of the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Tuesday, but there’s still a path left to a medal.
Despite the loss, Croatia will compete in the third-place game on Saturday for the second time in the tournament’s history. In 1998, Croatia beat the Netherlands 2-1 to win bronze in its first time competing in the World Cup.
This time, Croatia will duke it out against either France or Morocco, the two teams competing in the second semifinal of 2022.
How would Croatia fare against whichever of the two sides they face? Let’s preview both potential matchups:
Croatia vs. France
A rematch of the 2018 final is still on the cards should Morocco continue its darkhorse run. But just like that year, it wouldn’t be a favorable matchup for the Vatreni.
Headlined by Kylian Mbappé, Les Bleus have got the job done making it to the semifinals despite probably being the most-injured team in Qatar. N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, Christopher Nkunku, Mike Maignan, Lucas Hernandez, Karim Benzema and Presnel Kimpembe are all focal points to the squad in some fashion, and France has swept its losses under the rug.
Olivier Giroud has continued to deliver in the French kit with four goals thus far, with Antoine Griezmann dialing up three assists to lead the team in that department. The French attack would give the solid Croatian backline fits with their speed and creativity, and Croatia – bar the outlier four-goal performance against Canada – have not been a serious goal-scoring team all tournament. It’d be difficult to envision them getting multiple past a French defense that can at times be leaky, but are usually stout against teams that don’t possess true quality.
The only area Croatia can grab a foothold of the game is in midfield with Luka Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić. That triumvirate has controlled games all tournament with their gifted technical quality, vision and awareness, even though it doesn’t automatically convert to goal-scoring actions. It’s how they pushed Brazil to a penalty shootout and won the possession battle against Argentina, but conceding the early penalty changed the game plan. France’s midfield has been vulnerable against tougher opposition – like England – but it has pushed through thanks to elite finishing in the attacking third.
In a theoretical matchup, Croatia would have to be careful not to go down two goals early like it did against Argentina because it doesn’t have the attacking juice up top to match France’s potential output.
Croatia vs. Morocco
You know the Spider-Man meme where they’re pointing at each other? That’s how this matchup would look like.
Croatia all tournament has prioritized being stout defensively and in the midfield since it can’t punish teams in many ways offensively. The longer it can draw out games for at least a point in group play and a penalty shootout in the knockout rounds, the better. But against the wrong team, that strategy can backfire, as Argentina showed. Lionel Messi and Julian Álvarez proved to be too much to handle, and the Vatreni had just two shots on target in 12 attempts.
But how did they beat Brazil? By stout goalkeeping, as Dominik Livaković logged 11 saves – Brazil had 11 shots on target in regulation and extra time. The expected goals from the Brazil win vs. the Argentina loss tell you two things: Croatia should have lost in the quarterfinals and its lack of goals would cost them. This time it was the latter. Croatia’s performances just weren’t sustainable to win games. Brazil’s style was — given the number of chances it produced –but that’s the nature of knockout football.
Morocco is in the same boat. The Atlas Lions have better attacking outlets than Croatia, but they don’t have the ability to sustain pressure like the Vatreni. It’s why they were ranked 31st in expected goals created in the tournament after beating Spain in a penalty shootout after being tied 0-0 through 120 minutes.
Similarly to Croatia, the Atlas Lions have a sturdy four-man backline that has seen Yassine Bounou not concede a goal from the opposition all tournament. The only one was an own goal against Canada. Currently, injuries to center backs Nayef Aguerd and Romain Saïss were worrisome, but they got past Portugal unscathed. Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui are the best fullback duo left among the four nations.
Two strong defensive teams usually lead to 0-0 outcomes and this is one that could go to penalties, but an early goal would definitely alter the game management for both sides. If Croatia wants a medal from this tournament, its best bet is hoping Morocco loses, even though the Atlas Lions will be pushing to create their own history, too.