“When you watch Rocky, you want to support Rocky Balboa and I think we are the Rocky of this World Cup. I think now the world is with Morocco.”
Of all the underdogs in pop culture, it is fitting that Morocco coach Walid Regragui chose Rocky from the eponymous film franchise.
Like the character of Rocky Balboa over the course of six films, Morocco have shown that they can take many a punch to the chin but still get up and continue fighting. It is no wonder that the Atlas Lions have emerged as every neutral fans’ favourite team in Qatar, having routinely punched above their weight.
Meanwhile, by knocking out favourites Brazil in the quarterfinals, Croatia have proven that their runners-up finish in Russia 2018 was no fluke. Despite seeing stars like Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Daniel Subasic retiring from international football, Croatia have brushed off the disappointment of a round of 16 finish at the 2020 European Championships and once again defied the odds at the World Cup.
Now, Morocco and Croatia are just one more win away from meeting in the final, and standing in their way are defending champions France and Lionel Messi-led Argentina respectively.
At the heart of Morocco and Croatia’s runs are two managers who command the respect of their squads and who have moulded their teams to play to their strengths against better teams.
Playing to their strengths
Morocco and Croatia have disciplined sides that are miserly to boot. While the North African team has scored five goals and conceded only one (an own goal), Croatia have scored six while letting in three goals.
Looking only at the numbers, it is easy to brush aside Morocco and Croatia’s semifinal runs as smash and grab by two teams who seemingly only play on defence. A look at the expected goal numbers for the two sides’ matches show that rather than a sustained rear guard action, Morocco and Croatia have simply stuck to what they do best.
In the round of 16, Morocco and Spain had identical xG’s of 0.9 while in the quarterfinals, Morocco had an xG of 1.6 to Portugal’s 1.2.
Out of possession, the trio of Sofyan Amrabat, Azzedine Ounahi and Selim Amallah have been effective in closing down opposition playmakers and forcing teams out wide.
The defensive trio of Romain Saiss, Nayef Aguerd and Jawad El Yamiq (against Portugal) have been very successful in repelling wave after wave of attacks, as the two Iberian nations experienced first-hand. Spain put in 21 crosses with only two finding their mark. Portugal too found it difficult to break the Moroccan blockade, swinging in 24 crosses with only four successful.
Though Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou deservedly took home the player of the match awards against Spain and Portugal, in reality the Sevilla shot-stopper was not peppered with shots in either match.
In contrast, Croatia have relied on frustrating the oppostion by keeping the ball for sustained periods of time. Who wouldn’t if you had a midfield comprising Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic.
Croatia coped with Brazil’s attacking riches simply by denying Neymar and Co possession of the ball.
Despite their reliance on their illustrious midfield troika, the Croatian defence has been called into action more often and has delivered every time.
Dominik Livakovic has been a revelation in the Croatian goal, pulling off 19 saves – the second most in the tournament. The Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper was also the star in Croatia’s penalty shootout wins, letting in just three goals.
Croatia’s player of the tournament undoubtedly has been the precocious Josko Gvardiol. The RB Leipzig defender’s performances at the heart of the defence has belied his age and is evidence why many of Europe’s top clubs are after his signature.
A lot of credit for Morocco and Croatia’s showing in Qatar is down to the culture fostered by their respective coaches.
Morocco’s historic semifinal run has showcased Regragui’s tactical nous and the willingness of his players to abide by their coach’s philosophy. Watching Morocco’s disciplined play, one might even forget that Regragui came aboard only in August.
The former defender’s appointment was not well received with many calling him “Mr Avocado Head”. Regragui’s first task was to coax the mercurial Hakim Ziyech back into the national team fold.
He also tapped into the Moroccan diaspora in Europe and brought in players to the squad even as many back home were calling for domestic league players to be given preference.
Regragui also chose to foster a family culture in the team by inviting parents of the players to stay with the team in Qatar. The sight of Hakimi and Regragui celebrating with their mothers, and Sofiane Boufal dancing on the pitch with his mother, remains one of the most endearing moments at this World Cup.
Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic had shown in Russia 2018 that he is not one to shy away from taking big decisions after booting striker Nikola Kalinic out of the team for dissent.
Even as their round of 16 match against Japan approached penalty shootouts, Zlatko did not hesitate to take off Modric and Kovacic, instead choosing to trust his younger players to step up and deliver. In a tournament that has seen teams suffer after sticking with star players, that Modric and Co had no qualms about coming off despite the looming penalty shootouts shows their trust in Dalic.
“We have four strikers and we said that we will rotate,” Dalic said after Croatia’s win over Brazil.
“Bruno entered the game and did not play well. He was not at the level he knows how to be. But he scored a goal and everything that was before, falls into the water. That’s his job and he’s better like that when he plays playmaker. Dominik had his crises, difficult moments and lost a little self-confidence. He did not defend well for two games, I told him that he was not good and that he had to improve. He understood that and it is the best way.”
Despite their heroics so far, it is likely that Morocco and Croatia may bow out to one of the greatest French teams and a Lionel Messi desperate to emulate Diego Maradona and win a World Cup. But at this mega competition where the underdogs have punched above their weight, another upset may not be as surprising.
“In one press conference three or four matches ago, I was asked if we could win the World Cup. And I said, ‘Why not?’ We can dream. Why shouldn’t we dream? If you don’t dream, you don’t get anywhere. It doesn’t cost you anything,” Regragui said.
And so Morocco and Croatia will dream, as will the world along with them.