To the pounding of drums and a backdrop of screeching whistles, Spain exited this World Cup on an afternoon of absorbing drama at Doha’s Education City.
If it’s possible to control a game of football without ever having possession then Morocco showed us all how to do it here. For 120 minutes, they sat in their own half and invited Luis Enrique’s Spain to come and win this game.
Spain – shorn of the imagination and intricacies of old – could not do it. In fact they failed to get anywhere near. At the end of extra-time, the statistics showed the 2010 champions had enjoyed 77 per cent of the play but had only one shot on target to show for it.
Morocco caused a seismic shock to dump Spain out of the World Cup on penalties and secure their first ever quarter-final
Luis Enrique’s men were under-par throughout and failed to produce a meaningful chance until the end of extra time
Morocco keeper Bono was imperious in the shootout as he saved two penalties to keep out Sergio Busquets and Carlos Soler
Spain players were totally dejected at the end of penalties, with Barcelona star Ansu Fati looking tearful on the turf
Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte was in tears after watching his side dismally crash out at the last-16 stage
Morocco manager Walid Regragui is hoisted up into the air by his squad after masterminding a victory for the ages
And when it came to the penalty shoot-out that Morocco’s players had been seeking all along, the north Africans held their nerves while the Spanish lost theirs.
Luis Enrique had said before this game that he hoped his players had practiced ‘thousands of penalties’ before coming to Doha. When it came to it, they only got to take three and they missed them all.
With this stadium crammed full of Moroccans, the shoot-out was always going to be an even greater test of Spanish nerve than usual. And when Pablo Sarabia, Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets contributed three dismal penalties – the first against the post and the other two saved – it was left to Morocco to complete a totally unexpected journey in to the last eight.
Spanish goalkeeper Unai Simon did save one penalty – Morocco’s third from Badr Benoun – but Abdelhamid Sabiri and Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech had by then scored their country’s first two and it was left to Achraf Hakimi to complete the victory with a gentle dink down the middle that summed up the control Morocca had on this game all afternoon.
The African side had chances to win it before spot kicks – with substitute Walid Cheddira missing after being put in the clear
Hakim Ziyech also failed to convert from close range after being played into the box late into extra time on Tuesday night
Pablo Sarabia later had a golden opportunity to nick it for Spain at the death before his shot brushed against the post
Fellow sub Carlos Soler has his head in his hands after watching Sarabia miss the chance with penalties looming
Nobody expected anything of them when they arrived at this World Cup. But the competition sat up and took notice when they beat Belgium in game two and they are now set course for a quarter-final against Portugal and Switzerland and, possibly, a semi-final against England or France.
Nobody will want to play them for sure. They are incredibly organised and industrious. Such was the ferocity of their hounding of Spanish players in possession here, it seemed unfeasible that they could keep it going for 120 minutes. But somehow they did and they now go deep in to this tournament fuelled by an almost manic belief and by some distance the noisiest and most fanatical supporters in Qatar. As far as their next opponents go, it is a potent and toxic combination.
Morocco’s defeat of Belgium nine days ago had been result that truly announced them at this World Cup. They also beat a decent Canada team to ensure they finished top of their group and earned this meeting Spain.
Spain’s progress had been slightly more complicated. Opening with a 7-0 rout of Costa Rica, they followed that with a draw with Germany and what could have been calamitous defeat to Japan in game three.
Enrique made five changes to the team that lost that game with centre forward Alvaro Morata perhaps the most notable omission.
Nico Williams – brother of Inaki – came on and was Spain’s best player, but he was left frustrated as Morocco kept things tight
Alvaro Morata was also introduced to give Spain more firepower, but he too was denied by the incredible Bono in goal
Even the world class presence and experience of Sergio Busuqets could not help Spain as they failed to get going in midfield
Morocco did not attempt to disguise their methods here. Sitting deep with two lines of four, the north African team were happy for Spain to have the ball and will have been satisfied with a first half that saw Enrique’s team do pretty much nothing with that.
From high up in the stands here, it was possible to view the moves of the Morocca players like pieces on a chess board. Whenever Spain moved forwards, the under dog nation dropped in to their familiar and clearly well-coached patter with just one man tasked each time with moving out to press the man with the ball.
If it is possible to dictate a game without having possession then this was the example of it. Spain had almost 70 per cent of the ball during the opening half but hardly did a thing with it. At the other end, meanwhile, Morocco did look dangerous on the counter.
In terms of chances of half chances, there were just two from Spain. The first saw Marco Asensio break through the inside left channel in the 26th minute and drive a shot in to the side netting at the near post.
Then, thirteen minutes later, the Barcelona midfielder Gavi delivered a dangerous low cross from the left that was intercepted by a red shirt just when Spain looked set to profit.
Sofyan Amrabat was one of the best players on the pitch with a combative display to frustate Spain and disrupt their passing
Morocco targeted Marcos Llorente – who was making his first World Cup start – as they tried to force him into mistakes
In terms of Morocco’s attacks, it was width that brought them opportunity. Ziyech had a good game against Belgium and was prominent here. So was Soufiane Boufel down the left flank and one shimmy and go from the Angers player sent Marcos Llorente so far the wrong way that it was a wonder he ever made it back again.
The Morocco hustle of Spain was intense and often saw them cough up possession. Nayef Aguerd robbed Asensio of the ball in centre field in the 38th minute and drove a long range shot hard and low at Unai Simon in the Spain goal. Then, just before half-time, two Boufal crosses worried Spain. The first was headed over by his team-mate Aguerd and the second was nodded back by Ziyech only for Manchester City’s Spanish defender Aymeric Laporte to clear.
Spain certainly needed to move the ball more quickly if they were to find a solution to the problem presented to them by their opponents. Doing this helped them win a free-kick in the 54th minute and when Danny Olmo drove it in from an angle Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou palmed it away from danger.
Morocco were not afraid to be physical and some of their challenges were only borderline legal. The referee seemed swayed by the noise coming from the huge Moroccan following, though, and didn’t award Spain as many free-kicks as he perhaps should have done.
Former Southampton man Sofiane Boufal was also a massive danger for Morocco with some electric runs in the first half
West Ham defender Nayef Aguerd was a colossus in defence before being forced off injured in extra time
As the hour mark came and went without any change to the flow of the game, Enrique blinked first and made three substitutions, including the introduction of Morata who had already scored three times at this tournament.
Not much changed though, if indeed anything at all. Still Morocco remained at their stations, waiting for Spain to take a risk. Every tackle by a red-shirted player was cheered as though it was a goal by the Morroco fans. Every misplaced pass by Spain was whistled with equal fervour.
Spain’s possession was up at 74 per cent by now but still they had registered just one shot on target, the same number as their opponents.
Spain had got very little out of their wide players all night. Too much of what they did was narrow as they tried fruitlessly to pass and pick their way through central alleyways that were more often than not manned by at least two opponents.
With eight minutes of normal time left to play, Spain did finally breach the red wall. Substitute Nico Williams slipped a pass through to Morata but when he whipped the ball across the face of goal from the right there was not a pale blue shirt there to nudge it in to the empty goal.
Ferran Torres was gifted a start by Enrique but while he got into promising areas, he couldn’t carve open clear cut chances
Youngster Gavi also struggled to show his talent as he was shackled by the physicality of a fearsome Morocco team
Morocco’s forays upfield had become even rarer by now but the north Africans continued to carry a threat. In fact their football in and around the Spanish penalty area was sharper and more dangerous. At times Spain lived on their wits as extra-time neared while their only opportunity of note came in the first minute of added time when Morata headed a deep free-kick high and wide at the back post.
Then, with almost the last kick of regulation play, a free-kick from Olmo on the left found its way all the way through the crowd and Moroccan goalkeeper Bounou made his only real save of the 95 minutes, diving left to push the ball away.
Morata at least had an idea as to what he wished to do, as did substitute Nico Williams. Both tried and succeeded to beat men to reach the byline and cross in the first period of added time. Both were good deliveries, too, but Morocco’s defending continued to be diligent and they were able to clear under great pressure both times.
There will now be huge question marks over the future of Enrique – who will wonder how his side went from hitting seven past Costa Rica to failing to score against Morocco in 120 minutes – and converting none from the spot
By now there were signs that the Moroccans were beginning to tire and little wonder. Both physically and mentally, the application they had shown had been unceasing and for them a penalty shoot out was now the clear end game, if indeed it hadn’t been so all along.
Having said that, substitute Walid Cheddira suddenly wriggled free in the Spanish penalty area in the 105th minute. The best chance of the night, the Bari player only had Simon to beat but shot too close to the goalkeeper’s legs.
That’s one of the strange things about football. As we reached the end of the game, with two late Spain bursts coming to nothing and Sorabia volleying across goal and wide at the death, all the statistics were in favour of Spain apart from one, shorts on target. Morocco had managed two while Spain, for all their pressure, had managed only one.