Morocco heroes stand tall to make history as Spain shrink in shootout



The shootout was this time a consistent continuation of the game rather than anything separate from it, as Spain still failed to score and Morocco stuck to their plan.

That was what was so impressive about this display, and why they will be a nightmare for anyone to face. They never once fell out of their brilliantly drilled defensive shape, even as Spain tediously pulled them this way and that.

It was wondrous from Regragui, who has now more than justified the decision to bring him in as manager shortly before the tournament began.

Luis Enrique instead must justify his own decisions, not least that starting attack, as Spain have fallen under all of the flaws he had been so intent on eradicating.

This always felt like a tournament too early for his team, but they have gone out far too early, a waste of talent.

They have paid the price for the lost momentum, as the goals again dried up. They certainly weren’t at 100 per cent here – although the game demanded that of them.

So much of this was one of those suffocating knockout ties, heightened by tension, deepened by the social history between the countries, made engaging if not always entertaining by the clash of styles. It was by some distance the most purely tactical game of the World Cup so far. Morocco were willing to cede Spain possession in the way many opposition sides choose they must, Spain passed it around them in the way they have been coached to – but to so little effect.

Sofiane Boufal on the ball for Morocco

Luis Enrique’s starting formation didn’t work. It was too passive, again producing too many passes.

It was telling that Spain finally began to produce opportunities when they brought on some of their direct players – like Nico Williams. He duly set up Alvaro Morata with one cross in the second half. It went over.

The manager did admit it wasn’t completely working, however, by hauling off one of his brightest young talents. Gavi is the future of the Spanish team but he struggled amid the immediate intensity of this, and seemed to be getting frustrated with the referee.

Spain were also getting frustrated with Morocco, whose defending was as dogged as we have come to expect. That started to force openings at the other end. Walid Cheddira could have wrapped it up before penalties. Unai Simon, for his part, made one huge stop from the substitute in extra time. It wasn’t the only time the Moroccan substitute was to be wasteful. It just wasn’t to cost them.

That was again from the kind of classic break Spain have been susceptible to when they have so much possession but so few breakthroughs.

Their moment of maximum excitement in the full 90 came when Rodri ducked under a Pedri free kick and Bounou pushed it away.

They just couldn’t get through Morocco.

Anguished Spanish players after their shootout defeat

It was like Regragui had drilled them for every possible angle. When Spain tried to play through, there were too many bodies. When they tried to go around, Noussair Mazraoui – and then later Yahya Attia Attia Allah – stayed solid. When they tried to go over, Romain Saiss was winning every header.

In the middle of it all, Sofyan Amrabat was commanding everything. There was a vintage sign of how the game was going when, shortly before Cheddira’s chance, Rodri decided to just shoot from 35 yards. It sailed over.

Spain’s best moment came at the very end, Rodri picking out Carlos Soler in the box, the midfielder putting his first-time shot out off the post.

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It was a sign of what was to come. It produced the loudest sound in this World Cup yet. That was for a team that are now more than revelations.

For Spain, it’s exodus.

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