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World Cup: Morocco’s defensive strength gives them historic semi-final hope

14:54 SAST 2022/12/07
Nayef Aguerd.
How do you score against this impenetrable Atlas Lions iteration who do not even know how to concede in a penalty shoot-out?

The half-time statistics in Tuesday’s penultimate round of 16 clash between Morocco and Spain made for interesting reading.

Spain had attempted only one shot in 45 minutes and accrued Expected Goals of 0.2 despite having 69 percent possession. That attempt came from Marco Asensio in the 25th minute, with Walid Regragui’s team largely comfortable in their defensive shape as Luis Enrique’s team probed patiently.

It felt like Spain would only edge in front through a Morocco mistake, and one nearly occurred halfway through the opening half but Ferran Torres was flagged offside so the goal would not have counted.

Yassine Bounou had played a casual pass into Nayef Aguerd but the centre-back let the ball run to Achraf Hakimi, who was caught flat-footed. What happened afterwards demonstrated the Atlas Lions’ fierce mentality to not give up a goal.

When Dani Olmo’s interception fell to the offside Torres, who laid the ball to club teammate Gavi, the teenager’s resulting shot was diverted to the bar by Bono. The rebound fell to Torres, but his goal-bound shot was blocked by Sofyan Amrabat. Then the lineman’s flag was raised.

Torres was offside but the North Africans were unaware until it did. The goalkeeper spared his and his defenders’ blushes while Amrabat completed the job by throwing his body in the way of Torres’ effort.

We all know how the rest of the game played out. Regragui’s crew became the fourth African side to make it to the last eight in the World Cup, a feat achieved by Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) before Tuesday’s success.

The former Wydad Casablanca boss is the only African boss to take a team to this stage of the competition — Valery Nepomnyashchy (Russian), Bruno Metsu (French) and Milovan Rajevac (Serbian) guided the Indomitable Lions, Lions of Teranga and Black Stars respectively.

Regragui taking charge only in late August makes this achievement taste extra sweeter. But they must refocus and go again on Saturday.

Their defensive strength is why observers are tipping them to go further in this competition, a strategy suited for tournament football than demanding league campaigns. The absence of deep data in the 1990 and early 2000s mean only the raw numbers of recent African nations can be considered.

Cameroon made it to the last eight conceding six times, Senegal’s 2002 iteration conceded five times and Ghana let in three opposition goals en route to that ill-fated meeting with Uruguay.

This is in contrast to Regragui’s crew, who have let in just one goal all tournament, with that being an own goal in the 2-1 success over Canada last week. No opposition player has scored against this side in 390 minutes of football and Spain could not even beat Bono from 12 yards from any of their three penalties.

They have conceded a paltry five shots on target against Croatia, Belgium, Canada and Spain, despite going into three of those four games as the underdogs.

They have won the Expected Goals (xG) battle only once in the World Cup but have hardly been outclassed in that time. Against Croatia, it was 0.5-0.4 for the European side, the North Africans edged the Red Devils 1.5-1.0 in their stunning 2-0 result and were defeated on xG by the Canadians 1.4-0.5.

A closer inspection of the latter shows Regragui’s crew were 0.53-0.49 to the good at halftime but invited pressure after the break knowing they did not have to force the issue as qualification was assured.

Spain struggled to make successful plays against Morocco despite having more touches in the attacking third (288) than the previous opponents the Atlas Lions faced. That said, the African side’s perceived passiveness without the ball gave way to resistance in allowing opponents to make inroads into their penalty area.

Croatia only had 17 touches in Morocco’s penalty area, Belgium and Canada had 10 and 11 respectively. The fact these respectively came from 111, 140 and 132 attacking third touches suggests a certain defiance in giving little away to the opposition.

Portugal are next in line, with the Selecao fresh from a 6-1 dismantling of Switzerland on Tuesday night.

With 120 minutes in Morocco's legs and Fernando Santos’ side effectively home and dry before the hour mark in their last 16 fixture, Portugal not only enter Saturday’s quarter-final as favourites but are also the physically refreshed outfit of the two sides.

Whether the Atlas Lions can maintain the outstanding defensive work for one more game remains to be seen but the lionhearted team have absolutely nothing to fear.

In this form, you cannot bet against Regragui’s troops succeeding where other African nations failed.