Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Magnificent Morocco shock toothless Spain in penalty shoot-out
Morocco won 3-0 on spot kicks after a tense, goalless 120 minutes.

Morocco 0 

Spain 0 

Morocco win 3-0 on penalties 

THIS WAS A song of ice and fire in which Spain were unable to keep their cool in the face of Morocco’s hours-long blast of pure intensity. Unable to score in 120 minutes, Spain could not even find a goal from the penalty spot, knocked out 3-0 on spot kicks, a bewildering end to a tournament that began with a 7-0 win. 

Spanish-born Achraf Hakimi showed them how to do it, with his delicately chipped penalty sending Morocco to a quarter-final against either Portugal or Switzerland but first to a state of heady bliss. 

To spin this as just another tale of Spanish profligacy would be wrong: Morocco hardly allowed them any chances to miss. Spain desperately lacked variation but Morocco’s organisation and discipline was an art in itself, plugging gaps and maintaining concentration for two hours, deconstructing Spain’s passing triangles. 

The Moroccan fans turned the Education City Stadium into a kind of sweaty, seething cauldron, the kind of arena in which no ironies nor pretensions survive. Spain, in their ice-blue kit, eventually melted, as the Moroccan fans greeted their possession with sustained, ear-splitting whistles, which grew to a kind of mad fervour whenever Spain edged closer to their penalty area.

Booing the entirety of Spanish possession is a kind of respiratory Olympics – the equivalent of trying to inflate a hot air balloon – but the Moroccan supporters nonetheless met the moment. There were times you could imagine their whistles alone repelling Spain from goal, a wall of noise into which Spain kept butting. 

Morocco were superbly organised, their 4-1-4-1 coiled and compressed, leaving Spain with no space to find Gavi or Pedri between the lines. Thus much of Spain’s first-half possession was pretty purposeless, their best first-half chance falling in freakish circumstances to an offside Gavi, who hit the bar but at least had little to rue. With much of Spain’s passing corralled on Pedri’s side to the left, Ferran Torres offered notional penetration with runs in off the right wing. Notional, as Spain often failed to find him, Luis Enrique exploding in frustration when one Torres run went unrewarded. 

morocco-v-spain-fifa-world-cup-2022-round-of-16-education-city-stadium PA Pedri is challenged by Azzedine Ounahi. PA

Morocco had no such issues in finding their most dangerous wide player. Sofiane Boufal, once of Southampton, tortured Marcos Llorente, the third man tried at right-back for Spain in the tournament thus far. Boufal created the half’s best chance, his cross headed over by centre-back Nayef Aguerd.  

Spain resumed their tense toil after the break, jabbing at Morocco’s compact block without prising an opening. They finally managed a shot on target, mind, Olmo receiving a short free-kick and lashing a shot right at Bono from range. With Spain still unable to pick their way through, Enrique made his first move, introducing a recognised striker in Alvaro Morata and also midfielder Carlos Soler, shifting slightly to a 4-2-3-1 to allow Pedri drop a little deeper and get on the ball, smothered as he had been by Morocco’s blanket defence.

Gavi removed and Pedri repositioned: the ultimate compliment to Walid Regragui’s set-up. It was redolent of Jose Mourinho’s famously successfully plan against Barcelona with Inter Milan in the Champions League 12 years ago, when he spoke of not parking a bus but a plane, having denied Barcelona any joy on the wings as well as through the centre. Luis Enrique swapped Torres for the electric Nico Williams but he too was shackled by the terrific Noussair Mazraoui.

It was a systemic success but Morocco could rely on individuals whenever Spain did punch a hole, Aguerd sliding to win an inch-perfect penalty-box challenge on Morata. 

Spain’s best hope of a goal came from from set-pieces, with Dani Olmo winning a couple of free-kicks down the left wing. Soler put the first on Morata’s head, which was planted into the stand. Olmo himself took the next effort, his whipped cross missing everyone and destined for the bottom corner of the net until it was met by a flying Bono, who slapped the ball away to merciful safety. 

Spain kept patiently prodding and picking at Morocco during extra-time, hoping to capitalise on tiring bodies. There was a moment in which they almost did: a Moroccan midfielder finally switched off to allow Busquets drift into space and bounce the ball out to the right wing, but Alejandro Balde’s shot was blocked. The lapse seemed to focus minds: Regragui sent a volley of fury his players’ way. He was relentless, unyielding: just like his players.  Spain, not encouraged, then seemed to run out of ideas, Rodri sauntering forward and throwing his tired leg at a weak shot from range. 

And then came a chance to win the game without any of the subsequent stress. The outstanding Azzedine Ounahi  scurried forward and slipped a pass through for substitute striker Walid Cheddira whose first touch was perfect – putting the ball on a leash without breaking stride – but as Moroccan fans rose in anticipation of a fierce, unbearable ecstasy, Unai Simon blocked the shot. 

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The last 15 minutes were to be survived for Morocco, as their clock seemed to tick the  wrong way. They were stretched to every sinew, Saiss collapsing in a fit of cramp but the outstanding Sofyan Amrabat was still shuttling from tackle to tackle, casting Spaniards aside like helmets flung off after a war.

Morocco, with the finishing line in sight, briefly and inexplicably got bold. Yahya Attitat-Allah and Ade Ezzalzouli knocked each other over attacking down the left flank and Spain suddenly had a counter-attack, blue shirts streaming forward into space they hadn’t seen all night. Morata spoiled it all by overcooking his pass. Morocco weren’t going to make the same mistake again, and they returned to their magnificent act of endurance for the closing minutes. There were scares, major scares: Saiss – muscles screaming – made a last-ditch block to Soler’s glancing header, while substitute Pablo Sarabia planted his late, late volley against the far post. 

morocco-v-spain-fifa-world-cup-2022-round-of-16-education-city-stadium PA Achraf Hakimi celebrates his decisive penalty. PA

Thus it was settled on spot-kicks, Spain’s baffling lack of cutting edge descending into parody as Pablo Sarabia hit the post and Bono saved from Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets. That allowed Spanish-born Hakimi his moment to win it: he steadied himself to graze the ball over Simon, unleashing all kinds of delirium. 

Morocco: Bono; Achraf Hakimi, Nayef Aguerd, Jawad El Yamiq, 83’, Romain Saiss, Noussair Mazraoui (Yahya Attitat-Allah, 81’);  Sofyan Amrabat, Azzedine Ounahi (Badr Benoun, 119’) Selim Amallah (Walid Cheddira, 81’); Hakim Ziyech, Youssef En-Nesyri, (Abdelhamid Sabri, 81’), Sofiane Boufal (Ade Ezzalzouli, 65’)

Spain: Unai Simon; Marcos Llorente, Rodri, Aymeric Laporte, Jordi Alba (Alejandro Balde, 97’); Sergio Busquets, Gavi (Carlos Soler, 62’) Pedri; Ferran Torres (Nico Williams, 75’, Pablo Sarabia, 118’), Marco Asensio  (Alvaro Morata, 62’ ,Dani Olmo (Ansu Fati, 97’)


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