LAV-LY WAY TO FINISH WHATEVER happens, at least one little genius of a No 10 has signed off from the World Cup on a high.
Luka Modric will watch Lionel Messi try to write the final chapter to his fairytale in today’s final and wonder what might have been.
Josko Gvardiol broke the deadlock with a diving header
Achraf Dari equalised for Morocco less than two minutes later
Mislav Orsic’s stunner won the game for Croatia just before half-tine
But Croatia’s captain and greatest ever player ended his career on the biggest stage of all as a winner.
And the two goals that earned him that pleasure were things of beauty.
Centre back Josko Gvardiol put being tormented by Messi behind him by heading home after a glorious free-kick routine.
Morocco equalised immediately in a crazy two minutes that set the tone for one of the most entertaining games of the tournament.
But Mislav Orsic’s beautiful strike just before the break ultimately proved enough to ensure Croatia would match the third place they secured in 1998.
The chants of “Dima Maghreb” – “Morocco forever” – rang around the stadium in what felt like a home game and Walid Regragui’s side played their part in an end-to-end encounter.
Youssef En-Nesyri headed a stoppage-time chance just over the bar but the North Africans could not extend their run for another 30 minutes.
Passions were running high and some of Regragui’s players confronted Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim at the end.
Modric, though, was all smiles after his team gave him the perfect send-off.
Both teams made changes from the semi finals – Croatia five to Morocco’s three – but there were early signs of nervousness in the North African ranks.
Goalkeeper Yassine Bounou was moving in mysterious ways within three minutes when he mishit a pass across his six-yard box that just about cleared the far post and went behind for a corner.
And it was no surprise that they went behind to the second-best free kick routine of the tournament.
Nothing will top Holland’s late, late equaliser against Argentina for sheer audacity.
But this was gorgeous. Modric feinted to take, but it was Lovro Majer, the man tipped to take over his mantle, who clipped in a cross. Ivan Perisic had peeled off to head the ball back across the goal and there was Gvardiol, with a perfectly timed run, to power a precision header past Bounou.
The Croats were still celebrating when Morocco equalised with a less textbook set-piece.
Their own new midfield talent, Genk teenager Bilal El Khannouss, was fouled and Ziyech stood over the ball.
His cross didn’t look great until it looped off Majer’s head and centre back Achraf Dari stole in to head past Dominik Livakovic.
For the rest of the first half there were half-chances for both sides.
Morocco continued to look uncertain at the back and Bounou parried a Modric shot before recovering to beat the palm the ball away to relative safety.
At the other end, Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi combined beautifully only for the Paris Saint-Germain right back to smash his cross behind Youssef En-Nesyri.
Modric was popping up all over the place, but opposing captain Ziyech caught the eye even more. He was tackling back, hitting crossfield passes, taking set-pieces, running at players – the lot.
Not for the first time in the last month, you wondered why Chelsea didn’t sign him instead of the bloke with the same name who has flopped at Stamford Bridge.
But just when it seemed an absorbing half would end level, El Khannouss lost the ball outside his own penalty area.
Croatia celebrating their victory which secured third place
This might have been Luka Modric’s final ever World Cup game
The captain collecting his medal
The entire Croatia squad with their medals
Marko Livaja touched it to Orsic and he hit a delicious curling shot that went in off the far post.
The second half was not quite as enjoyable, but still an absorbing contest.
Croatia initially looked the more dangerous, but Majer and Andrej Kramaric both failed to take advantage of decent openings.
Former Leicester striker Kramaric left the field in tears after being forced off by injury on the hour mark, knowing that at 31 years old he would probably not kick another ball at a World Cup.
That’s the agony that comes with the ecstasy of an event that happens only every four years.
Thank heavens Arsene Wenger has ditched at least one of Fifa’s stupid expansion plans, the tournament being held twice as often.
You hope, though, that Modric will give the world one more major tournament when the Euros are held in Germany in 18 months’ time.
There was nothing in his performance or Croatia’s to suggest they can’t be a force there, especially if they can unearth a top striker.
That said, En-Nesyri could could have snatched an equaliser even before his late chance.
While Croatia were still screaming for a penalty for Sofyan Amrabat’s challenge on Gvardiol, the ball dropped for En-Nesyri but Livakovic was quick to smother his shot.
Sadly, inexperienced Al Jassim did lose a bit of control in the dying minutes.
A questionable booking led to Moroccan players, not for the first or last time, jostling the official, while a separate scuffle broke out between the two teams.
That is not how the history-making North Africans want to be, or will be, remembered.
Mateo Kovacic had a late chance to kill the game, then En-Nesyri missed his opportunity to wreck Modri’s night.
But those two lovely goals were enough to make sure the maestro’s last memory of the World Cup would be a happy one.