Will Morocco’s fairy tale continue?
The penultimate World Cup 2022 last-16 battle takes place at the Education City Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, as Morocco pit their wits against Spain.
La Roja finished second in Group E to set up a tie with their African counterparts, who fended off Croatia and Belgium to finish first in Group F.
With the golden generation of Belgium underperforming and 2018 runners-up Croatia struggling to find a consistent attacking spark, Morocco took full advantage to claim a surprising first-place finish in Group F with seven points from nine on offer.
Even in their goalless draw with Croatia, the plaudits largely went to Walid Regragui’s men, who followed that point up with successive wins over Belgium and Canada to become one of only two African teams in the last 16 of the World Cup - the other being Senegal.
During their matchday three encounters with Canada, Hakim Ziyech took advantage of a blunder from Milan Borjan to chip the Canucks goalkeeper from distance in the fourth minute, and Youssef En-Nesyri put the icing on the cake before a Nayef Aguerd own goal gave the Canadians a slight glimmer of hope.
However, the Atlas Lions held on for the three points that would send them through to the knockout stages as group winners, and the 2022 tournament marks only the second time that Morocco have got this far, having been eliminated in the last 16 in 1986.
Now riding the wave of an eight-game unbeaten run in all competitions - during which time they have only conceded two goals - Regragui’s men are out to become the first Morocco side to reach the quarter-finals, and they could also match continental history, as their four-game unbeaten run at the World Cup can only be beaten by Cameroon’s five between 1982 and 1990 out of all the African nations.
Luis Enrique did not pull any punches as his side failed to hang on to a one-goal lead against Japan on the final matchday in Group E, where Alvaro Morata’s 11th-minute opener ultimately counted for very little against Hajime Moriyasu and his perennial super subs.