Morocco advance after solid victory against Canada

Morocco advance to Spain in knockout round thanks to clutch win

Morocco entered the Al Thumama Stadium knowing that a draw against Canada would secure a round of 16. A win would put them first in a tight, highly contested group.

It was only natural that Morocco went after their three points.

Canada looked confused and uncertain from kick-off. Chaves center box Steven Vitoria was unable to control a bouncing ball in the fourth minute and shoved a touch at Red Star keeper Milan Borjan. Borjan had to come out of the penalty area to clear the ball, but he shot the ball straight into Hakim Ziyech’s grateful feet. Ziyech had a wide open aim and he fired it in coolly.

Morocco doubled their lead with a beautiful long ball from Achraf Hakimi from his own half. En-Nesyri clung to the ball and outran two defenders before firing his shot past Borjan.

In the 40th minute, disaster struck for Morocco. Sam Adekugbe’s daisy-cutting cross from the wing hit Aguerd’s foot and sent the ball to Sevilla stopper Yassine Bounou. Bounou was unable to react in time to save the deflected shot, reducing Morocco’s lead to one.

Ziyech fired a cross from a free kick into the penalty area in the 45th minute, aiming for a plundering Besiktas defender Romain Saiss. Canada anticipated the cross and headed it out of danger. What the defense didn’t expect was En-Nesyri’s thumping volley from the center of the box to put Morocco ahead 3-1. The linesman disapproved because Aguerd blocked the keeper for offside.

Morocco and Canada both had chances, but most of the game came from Morocco trying to avoid a major firefight. Alphonso Davies almost scored, but his shot fell just yards from the post. Besiktas’ Aitba Hutchinson’s strike hit the crossbar and Montreal fullback Alistar Johnston’s header narrowly went over the net.

So the match ended with Morocco holding on to its narrow victory. Canada’s first World Cup berth since 1986 ended when they lost their three group stage matches as Morocco advance 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 powerful, as his 2020-21 season showed when he scored 18 goals in La Liga. Yet it is inconsistent. En-Nesyri has scored just five goals for Sevilla in the past two years. But when Morocco needed him most, he was a hero.

His 23-minute strike gave Morocco a solid lead, and he had nearly a second just before the break until VAR ruled it out. As well as being ruthless in front of goal, he was a major nuisance to the Canadian rear. The wingers found him on many deep runs Canada couldn’t stop, and he held the ball really well. He was also very involved in the last third. The goal striker had 38 touches and created space wherever he went.

The word to sum up his achievements would be effectiveness. As usual, En-Nesyri didn’t see much of the ball. But when he did, he took full advantage of it. He showed manager Walid Regragui exactly why he deserves to play in the first team.

Dark horses?

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

They went on a deep run in the Africa Cup of Nations before meeting eventual finalist Egypt. She routed DR Congo on its way to a World Cup bid. And in friendlies they found their way with victories over Chile and Georgia.

But I don’t think anyone, not even the most optimistic Moroccan fan, expected such a fiery performance from the Atlas Lions. They set up a stalemate in Croatia, beating Belgium and Canada to make an appointment with Spain.

Beating the declining Spanish team would give Morocco their best ever World Cup performance, and Regragui is just the right man to do just that. He won numerous leagues and cups in Morocco and broke into the mainstream last summer with a victory in the CAF Champions League. His tactics have proved flawless in the World Cup so far, and the Atlas Lions’ talent is second to none.

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

Photo credit: IMAGO/Xinhua

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