Kevin De Bruyne called it right: this ageing Belgium team have no chance of winning the World Cup on the evidence available so far in Qatar. Morocco succeeded where Canada failed in punishing another flat display from the team ranked second in the world, to record their first victory at a World Cup since defeating Scotland in 1998.
Two substitutes, Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal, scored late goals that gave Morocco only their third World Cup win and ignited wild celebrations all around Al Thumama Stadium. The tournament’s latest shock was richly deserved, but not really a shock at all given the paucity of Belgium’s contribution.
Morocco were incisive and energetic, while Belgium lacked ideas and had lead in their legs, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard especially, while even the usually imperious Thibaut Courtois creaked in the Belgium goal. Roberto Martínez’s team can qualify for the last 16 but are a fading shadow of the side that finished third in Russia in 2018.
“We played against one of the best teams in the world with big players,” said Morocco’s head coach, Walid Regragui. “And we knew that if we didn’t give 100% it would be impossible to win. But with these fans, these players and this spirit we could give the best performance.”
A stirring rendition of the Moroccan national anthem confirmed the vast majority of the stadium were supporting the north African team.
Morocco’s every touch was met with impassioned screams; Belgium’s with jeers. Belgium attempted to take the sting out of the crowd by controlling the tempo and dominating possession, 78% of it in the opening 15 minutes. That is one way of describing their performance. Another is that they bored everyone to tears.
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Martínez’s team initially responded to their laboured and lucky win against Canada. The manager reverted to a back four and made three changes including the introduction of Amadou Onana, who was largely responsible for last Wednesday’s modest second-half improvement. They started on the front foot, with Michy Batshuayi forcing a fine early save out of Munir El Kajoui, but mostly it was possession football with no penetration.
Morocco were forced to change their goalkeeper moments before kick-off when Yassine Bounou told Regragui that “he did not feel right”. Bono, as he is more commonly known, lined up for the anthem but was replaced by the time Morocco gathered for the team photo.
“With or without you?” Regragui might possibly have asked his first‑choice keeper before summonsing El Kajoui. Apologies, it was a dull first half.
Hakim Ziyech was hugely influential for a Morocco side whose confidence and sense of adventure increased as the contest developed.
Pinpoint crossfield passes between the Chelsea winger on the right and the former Southampton midfielder Sofiane Boufal on the left opened up Belgium several times. Selim Amallah volleyed over after one such move and the right-back Achraf Hakimi wasted a good opening when blazing wide with the striker Youssef En Nesyri waiting for a cross.
Morocco believed they had their first goal of the World Cup just before half-time after Ziyech was fouled by Thorgan Hazard. Ziyech took the free-kick and whipped it goalwards. Courtois, unsighted by Romain Saïss and Hakimi, was deceived by the flight and a touch off Saïss. The ball squirmed through his grasp and over the line but the Real Madrid keeper’s embarrassment, and the wild Morocco celebrations, were curtailed by VAR. Saïss’s shoulder was offside.
Courtois would not be spared when Morocco repeated the routine with 17 minutes remaining. After a Thomas Meunier foul on the right, Sabiri drilled a free-kick towards Saïss, who was moving in at the near post. The central defender, onside this time, pulled his midriff out of the way and Belgium’s goalkeeper was deceived again. The ball flew under his grasp and he would not be spared by VAR on this occasion.
Morocco’s head coach said: “We have good free-kick takers and we saw that at his near post Courtois is sometimes overconfident. He is a tall goalkeeper and sometimes he leaves a bit of space at the near post, and that’s what happened.”
Martínez had already made several substitutions in an attempt to inject an end product into Belgium’s display. They did not succeed, although El Kajoui saved from Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Batshuayi.
Panic was rising in the stands as Five minutes of stoppage time were signalled. It turned to pandemonium when Ziyech escaped down the right and pulled the ball back for Aboukhlal who, allowed too much space inside the area by Axel Witsel, swept a superb finish in to the top corner. “We have four points after playing two of the best teams in the world and that is absolutely extraordinary for Morocco,” said Regragui. “But I’m not happy with four points. I want more.”