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World Cup: Morocco chase historic Spain win to continue underdog story

20:20 EAT 05/12/2022
Morocco 2022 World Cup Canada
Matching Cameroon’s unbeaten record will please Walid Regragui but not as much as getting within another 90 minutes of recording African history

Morocco’s players either represent top clubs in Europe or have previously played at illustrious sides competing for domestic and continental honours.

Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi are the standouts, with the former still contracted to Chelsea, albeit in a peripheral role and the wide defender one of Paris Saint-Germain’s key players as they chase an elusive Champions League crown.

That said, they probably pinched themselves after how the last fortnight has ensued.

Morocco went into the World Cup uncertain about the turn of events, owing to the departure of Vahid Halilhodzic and the subsequent appointment of Walid Regragui in late August. The departed Bosnian remains displeased with his dismissal, pointedly labelling it “true sporting and moral injustice”.

Replacing the forthright manager was Regragui, who did not take charge of his first Atlas Lions tune-up game until September, exactly two months before they faced Croatia in their opening game at this year’s finals.

He recalled Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui, two players who fell out with Halilhodzic, looking to add to the quality of the North African nation preparing for their sixth World Cup.

Much was probably not expected as they faced Belgium and Croatia in Group F, nations ranked second and 16th in the Fifa Men’s Ranking, with Canada (38) the only side they (24) outranked before the commencement of the global showpiece.

The favourites to advance reached the semi-finals in Russia four years back, with the Red Devils narrowly losing to eventual champions France, who defeated Luka Modric and co in the decider. Morocco would have been happy to end the group with three points, maybe four, if they got lucky.

They got seven, ending the group phase unbeaten after claiming a creditable stalemate with Croatia and stunning Belgium 2-0. The Atlas Lions had won just two World Cup games since their tournament debut in 1970 but picked up as many victories in just three games in Qatar, thus advancing to the knockout stage for the first time since 1986.

Ziyech — who has dominated several attacking metrics — has been showered with most of the plaudits but this has been a team effort.

Youssef En-Nesyri entered this tournament without a domestic goal for Sevilla but he became the country’s first player to score in two World Cups. Hakimi impressively set up the centre-forward with a well-weighted ball around the Canadian defence from inside his half.

Defensively, the PSG man is putting in the hard yards. No colleague has outdone Hakimi’s 18 tackles plus interceptions, with the trio of Ziyech, Sofyan Amrabat and Mazraoui on 11.

At centre-back, Romain Saiss has been no-nonsense for the most part, clearing the ball from harm’s way 19 times. His partner, Nayef Aguerd, has significantly fewer clearances (eight) but the pair will be busy against Spain on Tuesday.

The Atlas Lions’ expectation after ending atop the group was a meeting with Japan. But the Samurai Blue stunned the 2010 champions last week 2-1 to pit the African side against Luis Enrique’s team.

The European nation has not matched their stunning 7-0 performance over Costa Rica in the subsequent games with Germany and Japan, but their dominance of possession will pose problems for Regragui’s crew.

That said, Morocco have shown they do not need much of the ball to secure positive results at the global showpiece, evidenced by their 36 percent average possession in the group phase.

Their unbeaten record at World Cups now stands at four matches and avoiding defeat against the Red Fury will take them to five matches without defeat. The Indomitable Lions set the record in 1990 — having played out draws in every group stage game eight years prior — before recording victories over Argentina and Romania in Italia ’90.

Regragui’s crew will match the Lions’ feat if they eliminate Spain, but they will have to continue to play out of their skins and show they can be greater than the sum of their parts.

“We didn’t come just to say ‘oh, we almost got close’,” said the Morocco boss after the 2-1 win over Canada. “We need to get the results as all the European or South American teams do. We need to emulate them.”

The North Africans have hitherto outperformed expectations, with expected goals for and against (xG and xGA) metrics suggesting they should have ended bottom of Group F rather than at the summit of the standings.

They are Africa’s last hope of securing a last-eight berth and with that an opportunity to become the continent’s maiden representatives at the semis.

With Morocco so far shattering pre-tournament expectations, they will require doubly mighty performances to make the last four.

That begins with Tuesday’s encounter with Spain at the Education City Stadium. The Lions have nothing to fear.