Four years after their fairytale run to the World Cup final led by player of the tournament Luka Modric, Croatia gets back underway to open up matchday four.
Then the group of death sees Australia’s Asian rivals facing a mammoth test with both Germany and Spain opening their campaigns.
Follow Matchday 4 including Morocco v Croatia (9pm AEDT), Germany v Japan (12am AEDT), Spain v Costa Rica (3am AEDT) and Belgium v Canada (6am AEDT) in our live blogs below!
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MOROCCO v CROATIA – Preview (via AFP) and live blog
What appeared to be a heavily pro-Morocco crowd packed the Al Bayt Stadium with whistles raining down on the Croatians whenever they had the ball.
Earlier Croatia captain Luka Modric said his team must “put aside” the memories of their run to the 2018 World Cup final ahead of their opening game against Morocco in Qatar.
Modric was named player of the tournament four years ago as Croatia reached the final for the first time before losing 4-2 to France in Moscow.
Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech started on the right of a three-man attack for Morocco.
Ziyech only returned to the Morocco squad in September after more than a year out following a dispute with former coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
Halilhodzic, who had also sidelined Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui for disciplinary reasons, was replaced by Walid Regragui in late August.
Mazraoui lined up at left-back with Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi on the opposite side of the defence, while midfielder Selim Amallah was included having shaken off an injury.
Modric was among four players who started the 2018 final defeat by France in Moscow.
Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisic were also in the line-up for Zlatko Dalic’s side.
Morocco (4-3-3): Yassine Bounou; Achraf Hakimi, Nayef Aguerd, Romain Saiss (capt), Noussair Mazraoui; Sofyan Amrabat, Azzedine Ounahi, Selim Amallah; Hakim Ziyech, Sofiane Boufal, Youssef En-Nesyri
Croatia (4-3-3): Dominik Livakovic; Josip Juranovic, Dejan Lovren, Josko Gvardiol, Borna Sosa; Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric (capt), Marcelo Brozovic; Nikola Vlasic, Ivan Perisic, Andrej Kramaric
Follow Morocco v Croatia from 9pm AEDT in our live blog below!
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GERMANY v JAPAN – Preview (via AFP) and live blog
Germany are desperate to erase the memory of their disastrous 2018 World Cup when they begin their campaign in Qatar against Japan, captain Joshua Kimmich said.
The four-time world champions were humiliated four years ago in Russia, exiting in the group stage for the first time in their illustrious history.
Germany will look to take out their frustration on Japan in their Group E opener and Kimmich said their motivation on the eve of the game was “huge”.
“We know that what happened four-and-a-half years ago was terrible, so we had quite a wait,” said the Bayern Munich man.
“The first game is extremely important. We lost our first game at the last Euros and we didn’t win the tournament, so I hope tomorrow we will win.”
Germany will be without Leroy Sane against Japan after the winger was ruled out on Tuesday with a knee injury.
Manager Hansi Flick said Sane could return for Germany’s second game against Spain on Sunday, but in the meantime he may turn to Thomas Mueller to fill the gap.
Mueller has been hampered by injury in recent months but Flick said the veteran was “definitely an option” against Japan.
“Today in training he did his job very well, we were happy with him,” said Flick.
“So yes, we have one option more, thanks to Thomas Mueller.”
Kimmich warned of the threat posed by Japan, who have eight players based in the Bundesliga, including Eintracht Frankfurt dangerman Daichi Kamada.
Kimmich said Kamada was “a smart player with a lot of intelligence” but he cautioned that other Japanese players can also cause Germany problems.
“Many of Japan’s players play in the Bundesliga and almost all of them are very agile, very fast, and are strong players,” he said.
“They have great technique so we have to be careful.”
Follow Germany v Japan from 12am AEDT in our live blog below!
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SPAIN v COSTA RICA – Preview (via AFP) and live blog
Spain coach Luis Enrique insisted that he is the team’s leader in the absence of any obvious star player, ahead of their first World Cup game against Costa Rica.
World Cup winner and captain Sergio Busquets tends to keep a low profile, while youngsters like Ansu Fati and Pedri could one day become stars in their own right but are still developing.
“The leader of the national team has to be the coach,” Luis Enrique told a press conference the day before Spain open their campaign against Los Ticos.
“I have to say I am the leader because who will believe in what I tell them, if there is any doubt.
“I decide who plays, when we travel, how we play, I am a leader who gives solutions to the team.
“I am delighted to be here, to debut as coach at a World Cup, enjoy this party of football, have the last training session this afternoon and take on the first game with joy.” Spain have the third youngest squad at the World Cup, with Luis Enrique leaning on younger talents while some older players like Sergio Ramos were left out of the squad.
“It’s very positive because young players bring energy to the team, we try to manage that with the experience we have as staff,” said Luis Enrique.
The coach admitted that the worst moment of the tournament so far came last week when he exercised that leadership, replacing Jose Gaya with Alejandro Balde, after the Valencia defender suffered a sprained ankle.
Asked about Spanish reports that Gaya’s ankle had already healed and he would have been able to play in the tournament, Luis Enrique explained his choice.
“I take decisions, if I took them by the heart, with what I feel for Gaya and his professionalism, then he’d still be here,” said the coach.
“I have to take them with my head. Two of the three games he would not have been 100 percent in, I was told it was an injury that would last 10 to 15 days. I had to take the best decision for the team and the country.
“Imagine if I listened to what they wanted and then Jordi Alba got injured, and I had no full-back for the first game, imagine what you would say about me.
“I have to lead this team and choose the best for it.” Luis Enrique said his lack of cover at left-back also contributed to Gaya departing, whereas in other positions he could have waited for an injured player to heal.
Costa Rica coach Luis Fernando Suarez said he took a different approach to leadership.
“I just help the leaders, I can facilitate them,” he told a press conference later Tuesday.
“In my group I have different leaders. I can have a few of them so I can manage them. Bryan (Ruiz) is one, Keylor (Navas) is another, Joel Campbell is another.
“We have a different type of leadership. We have to be smart enough to know who the leaders are and help them.”
Follow Spain v Costa Rica from 3am AEDT in our live blog below!
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BELGIUM v CANADA – Preview (via AFP) and live blog
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said his side have “huge respect” for Canada who will be playing their first World Cup game for 36 years when the teams meet in Qatar.
Martinez’s side finished third in Russia four years ago and will be heavy favourites against Canada, playing at the finals for the first time since 1986.
Belgium faced a similar proposition in 2018 when they beat tournament debutants Panama 3-0 in their opening game with three second-half goals.
“We have huge respect for what Canada have achieved because when you finish top of the (qualifying) group ahead of national teams such as United States and Mexico, it’s something with substance, it’s not a coincidence,” Martinez told a pre-match press conference.
“They look like a team, not just a group of players coming together to play for the national team.
“That’s a very dangerous situation, when you’re playing a team with nothing to lose. We saw that with Panama for 50 minutes, and we have to match that enthusiasm.” Belgium, ranked second in the world behind Brazil, played a warm-up friendly against Egypt last week in Kuwait but lost 2-1.
“The friendly was important for us and we took that game almost as a competitive training session,” said Martinez.
“I think it was a very good starting point.
“It’s good sometimes to feel like we’re not there yet. It was a wake-up for us. Probably that defeat will speed up the process.”
Belgium’s record goalscorer Romelu Lukaku is set to miss their first two matches as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury.
Captain Eden Hazard has also struggled for game time at Real Madrid due to struggles with form and fitness.
But veteran defender Jan Vertonghen said Belgium would be ready, despite the unusual build-up to the first World Cup played midway through the European club season.
“(Normally) you can close your season with your club and then have time to work with your (national) team, a team you don’t work with too much, and get a feel for the tournament,” he said.
“Lots of teams have not played together since September and that is not good. Things are entirely different but the World Cup trophy is the same and that’s the main thing.”
Follow Belgium v Canada from 6am AEDT in our live blog below!