Atlas Lions edge past Spain on penalties to become the first Arab country to reach World Cup quarter-finals.
Morocco have booked their place in the World Cup’s quarter-finals after a sensational penalty shootout win against Spain, becoming the first Arab country to ever reach the tournament’s last eight.
The Atlas Lions’ Spanish-born superstar wing-back Achraf Hakimi brought the curtain down on Tuesday’s last-16 clash at the Education City Stadium, notching the winner from the spot to make it 3-0 on penalties and sending the tens of thousands of raucous Moroccan fans in attendance into rapture.
Pablo Sarabia, Carlos Soler and captain Sergio Busquets missed their penalties for Spain; Sarabia hit the post and Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou stopped the other two.
It was a goalless deadlock after the 120 minutes of normal and extra time and penalty kicks were necessary to break the impasse.
Morocco will next face either Portugal or Switzerland in the quarter-finals on Saturday. The Atlas Lions are the only team from outside Europe or South America still in the tournament.
Spain’s penalty practice proves insufficient
Spain had been hoping they could repeat their 2010 World Cup triumph in Qatar after a promising run at Euro 2020 that saw them reach the semi-finals before being beaten on penalties by Italy.
Coach Luis Enrique said before Tuesday’s showdown with Morocco that he had instructed his players to take “at least 1,000 penalties” in the build-up to the World Cup in a bid to ensure they were ready to deal with the pressure of a penalty shoot-out.
But their preparation came up short in the heat of the contest, with Sarabia striking the post from Spain’s first penalty having been specifically sent on in anticipation of the shoot-out.
His miss came after Abdelhamid Sabiri had sent Morocco 1-0 ahead in the shootout, and paved the way for Hakim Ziyech to net for the Atlas Lions and put them 2-0 ahead.
Soler then saw his effort saved by Yassine Bounou, Morocco’s 31-year-old Canadian-born goalkeeper, before Badr Benoun also missed for Morocco.
Busquets was unable to turn the tide with his tame effort, leaving the stage set for Hakimi to step up and nonchalantly guide his side to victory with a calm chipped shot down the centre of goal, sometimes called a “Panenka”.
Toothless Spain outdone by resolute Morocco
Spain had enjoyed more than 75 percent of possession during normal and extra time, completing nearly 1,000 passes in total, but managed just a single shot on target prior to the penalty shoot-out.
The Spanish spent big chunks of the match just orbiting Morocco’s penalty area without attempting any shots, through-balls or moves to break down their well-organised opponents.
Morocco, meanwhile, caused problems for Enrique’s side on the counterattack, forcing goalkeeper Unai Simon to make several good saves.
The Atlas Lions used the pace of Hakim Ziyech and Soufiane Boufal to great effect and a foul on the latter gave the African side the first scoring opportunity as Achraf Hakimi blazed over a free-kick.
Defender Nayef Aguerd later headed over, while Marco Asensio hit the side-netting for Spain.
Dani Olmo recorded Spain’s first shot on target in the 54th minute with an angled shot which Bounou palmed away.
Enrique then sent on Alvaro Morata and Nico Williams in a bid to inject life into his team, but Morocco dug deep to get through extra time without conceding. Their resolute display ensured they finished as deserved winners following Spain’s subsequent collapse in the penalty shootout.