Venue – Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan
Date: Saturday, December 17
The third-place playoff is a weird game in any tournament. The winners claim third place – something they likely don’t want after being 90 minutes away from playing in the final a few days earlier – but that is the better end of the result. The losers get to end their World Cup – a World Cup where they were able to become one of the best four teams in the entire world – but losing two games in a row and generally feeling down about the whole event.
The upside of this match is that as there is so little (relatively) to play for, it often ends up being an exciting contest. Croatia and Morocco have been solid defensive teams all tournament, so it will be interesting to see if the managers let their sides open up and express themselves in a way that hasn’t been possible in the knockout rounds.
There is also the subplot of the great Luka Modric likely calling time on his World Cup career in this match. Modric has had a career overshadowed by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Still, the diminutive Croatian lynchpin has forged a path to be proud of both in the red and white chessboard pattern of Croatia and with club sides in England and Spain. If this is his last hurrah on the world stage, he will be sorely missed.
The team that Croatia puts out will be telling. The likes of Modric and Ivan Perisic will want to represent their country for potentially the last time at this level, but they have put some miles on their bodies already in Qatar. There is every chance they will be coming off the bench, while unsung midfielder Marcelo Brozovic looked to be struggling with a thigh injury when he was subbed off in the Argentina game. There isn’t a single mix of youth and experience that would surprise me when the team is announced, with the exception of no changes at all from the semi-final.
Morocco might have to deal with just finding 11 healthy bodies in the squad and sending them out to fight for third place. The injured trio of Romain Saiss (captain), Noussair Mazraoui, and Nayif Aguerd were all pressed into action and started in the semi-final. None made it past half-time, with Aguerd not even getting through the warmup before he was withdrawn from the team.
The Morocco squad is shorter on quality depth than you would expect from a team that made a World Cup sem-final. Their story has been stunning – perhaps the biggest in the tournament outside Messi’s quest for gold – but that lack of depth might be an issue here. One player back in contention is Walid Cheddira, who returns from suspension after his laughable second booking in the quarter-final ruled him out of the France game.
One interesting bet here could be on total goals. There have been 19 World Cup third-place playoffs to date and the average number of goals per 90s minutes in those games is a massive 3.7. Looking at the BetXchange lines, you can get 2-3 goals at 19/20 or 4-5 goals at 29/10, both feel worth considering.
If you are betting on the winner, Croatia feels like the right choice. Morocco will have a big crowd behind them, but the attrition they have seen through the tournament to several key players is a big problem. Take Croatia at 14/10.