Morocco dump Spain to set up clash with Portugal

Morocco, the only remaining African side in the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, knocked down the heavyweight Spain on Tuesday and qualified for the quarterfinal stage.

The goalless affair, in the end, was decided by a penalty shootout after 90 minutes of regular play and 30 minutes of extra time.

It was Morocco’s ever-smiling goalkeeper Yassine Bounou who stopped penalties (second and third) from Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets – Spain’s captain – as the former world champions failed to convert none of penalty kicks in the shootout. The first one from Pablo Sarabia had hit the upright.

On their part, the Moroccans scored from the first (Abdelhamid Sabiri), second (Hakim Ziyech) and fourth (Ashraf Hakimi) while Badr Benoun failed on the third which was stopped by Spanish goalkeeper Unai Simon.

Earlier, the two teams were closely matched through a nail-biting clash, with Spain having more of the ball but Morocco creating the better openings, few though they were.

Luis Enrique trialled his third right-back of the tournament in Marcos Llorente, and benched the team’s top scorer Alvaro Morata for Marco Asensio, after the shock defeat by Japan.

Spain monopolised the ball, with Morocco’s fans furiously whistling with their side out of possession.

With La Roja playing in a pale blue second strip, they resembled the away team on hostile territory.

Gavi, who at 18 years and 123 days old became the youngest player to start a World Cup knockout game since Brazil great Pele in 1958, rose to the occasion.

The Barcelona midfield terrier was at his most intense, smashing into challenges left, right and centre, even diving to make one with his head.

Bounou tipped a Gavi strike on to the crossbar, though it would have been ruled offside, while Asensio drilled into the side-netting, although Spain created little.

Regragui’s side sat deep defensively and threatened on the counter, with Unai Simon beating away a long range effort from Noussair Mazraoui.

Morocco will now meet Portugal, who beat outplayed Switzerland 6-1, in the third quarterfinal on Saturday.  

This spectacular victory generated an enthusiastic response among Morocco’s supporters and squad members.

Dominant Portuguese

In the last of the Round of 16 clashes, Portugal coach Fernando Santos dropped Cristiano Ronaldo to the bench for the match and was rewarded with a hat-trick from his replacement Goncalo Ramos and a stunning team display.

Portugal coach Fernando Santos dropped Cristiano Ronaldo to the bench for the match and was rewarded with a hat-trick from his replacement Ramos and a stunning team display.

Santos expressed his displeasure at gestures made by Ronaldo when he was substituted in the last group game against South Korea and it was the first time in 31 games stretching back to 2008 that he had not started in a major tournament.

Portugal made light of the 37-year-old’s absence to put it mildly, as 21-year-old Benfica striker Ramos hit the first treble of this tournament on his first international start, to help set up a quarter-final against surprise package Morocco after their win against Spain on penalties.

Portugal coach Ramos obliged with the game won, Ronaldo entering to rapturous applause, but his team-mates deserve all the acclaim for a high-class performance.

Ronaldo had the ball in the net but was ruled offside so it was another young pretender to his crown, 23-year-old Rafael Leao, who crowned a dazzling display when he curled in the sixth.

Ronaldo was swarmed by photographers in the dug-out after the national anthems then received a pop star’s welcome when he came on as substitute after 74 minutes following prolonged and noisy demands for his introduction, particularly from the locals who had come to see him in the flesh.

The credit must go to a Portugal team who looked more mobile, fluid and unified without the man who is currently searching for his next club having left Manchester United.

Portugal is a team full of talent even without Ronaldo and Ramos made an instant impact, not just with his goals but also his movement and team play.

And the sweet late strike from Rafael Leao was another demonstration of Portugal’s bright future, one that hardly looked in jeopardy without Ronaldo as they swept Switzerland aside.

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