Morocco moves on to play to Spain in knockout round thanks to clutch win

Morocco entered Al Thumama Stadium knowing a draw against Canada would clinch a round of 16 spot. A win would give them first-place in a tight, highly-contested group.

It was only natural Morocco came hunting for their three points.

Canada looked confused and uncertain right from the kick off. Chaves center-bak Steven Vitoria could not control a bouncing ball in the fourth minute, shoving a touch to Red Star keeper Milan Borjan. Borjan had to come out of the box to clear the ball, but he sent it right to the grateful feet of Hakim Ziyech. Ziyech had a wide open goal, and he coolly slotted it in.

Morocco doubled their lead with a superb Achraf Hakimi long ball from inside his own half. En-Nesyri latched onto the ball, outracing two defenders before sending his shot past Borjan.

Tragedy struck for Morocco in the 40th minute. Sam Adekugbe’s daisy-cutting cross from the wing connected with Aguerd’s foot, sending the ball to Sevilla stopper Yassine Bounou. Bounou could not react in time to save the deflected shot, trimming Morocco’s lead back to one.

Ziyech sent in a cross off a free-kick into the box in the 45th minute, aiming for a marauding Besiktas defender Romain Saiss. Canada anticipated the cross, heading it out of danger. What the defense did not anticipate was En-Nesyri’s booming volley from the middle of the box to give Morocco a 3-1 lead. The linesman ruled it out due to Aguerd blocking the keeper while being offsides.

Morocco and Canada both had chances, but the majority of the match came from Morocco trying to prevent a big shootout. Alphonso Davies nearly scored, but his shot fell just yards away from the post. Besiktas’ Aitba Hutchinson’s strike hit the bar, and Montreal wingback Alistar Johnston’s header barely went over the net.

So the game ended with Morocco clinging on to its narrow win. Canada’s first World Cup berth since 1986 ended with them losing their three group stage matches, while Morocco advances to the round of 16 for the second time in its history.

En-Nesyri is back and better than ever

Youssef En-Nesyri is many things. He is potent, as his 2020-21 season showed when he knocked in eighteen goals in La Liga. Yet, he is inconsistent. En-Nesyri scored just five goals for Sevilla in the past two years. But when Morocco needed him the most, he was a hero.

His 23rd-minute strike gave Morocco a firm lead, and he nearly had a second just before halftime until VAR disallowed it. Not only was he ruthless in front of goal, but a major nuisance for the Canadian back line. The wingers found him on a lot of deep runs that Canada could not stop, and he held up the ball very well. He was also very involved in the final third. The target forward had 38 touches and created space wherever he went.

The word to sum up his performance would be effectiveness. En-Nesyri, as usual, did not see much of the ball. But when he did, he made full use of it. He showed manager Walid Regragui exactly why he deserves to be in the first team.

Dark horses?

The term “underrated” is overused in modern-era. But Morocco is all that and more. Along with Japan and maybe Senegal, Morocco is one of the teams that players should watch out for. And for good reason.

They made a deep run into the Africa Cup of Nations before running into eventual finalist Egypt. They routed DR Congo en route to a World Cup bid. And in friendlies, they found their footing with wins over Chile and Georgia.

But I do not think anyone, not even the most optimistic Moroccan fan, expected such a fiery performance from the Atlas Lions. They stalemated Croatia and beat Belgium and Canada to set up a date with Spain.

Beating the declining Spanish team would give the Morocco their best-ever performance at a World Cup, and Regragui is exactly the right man to do it. He won countless leagues and cups inside Morocco, and he broke through into the mainstream last summer with a CAF Champions League win. His tactics have been fail-proof so far in the World Cup, and the Atlas Lions’ talent is unmatched.

Spain should definitely treat this game with caution, as the Atlas Lions have shown their roar.

Photo credit: IMAGO / Xinhua

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