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Morocco's players celebrate after beating Spain on penalties to reach the FIFA World Cup quarter-final. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: It was appropriate that this game was being played at the Education City Stadium because Morocco looked determined to teach Spain a lesson.

They stormed out of the blocks and took the game to Luis Enrique’s young side, clattering into tackles and winning all of the second balls. This was the first time they had been in the last 16 of the World Cup since 1986 and they certainly rose to the occasion.

The 2010 champions looked shell-shocked and tried to use every trick in the book in a bid to slow the game down. It eventually settled into a pattern most expected with them dominating possession and their back four basically in midfield.

Morocco makes World Cup history

But as soon as Morocco won the ball back they were not waiting around with Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech flying down the right wing. And when the ball was switched Sofiane Boufal continued to get in behind Spain’s defence on the other flank. Led by the vociferous captain Romain Saiss the Moroccan’s looked far more dangerous than their illustrious opponents. But the Red Fury – who had scored in their last 24 matches since a 0-0 draw against Portugal in 2021 – almost snatched the lead. Ferran Torres pulled the ball back to Dani Olmo whose shot was brilliantly tipped onto the bar by Yassine Bono.

One shot

Back came Morocco with their Spanish-born right-back Achraf Hakimi using his attacking instincts to get forward as much as possible. The Paris Saint-Germain star was seeing plenty of the ball and putting it to good use and keeping it tight at the back. In fact Morocco’s defending was so impressive that Spain just had just one shot in the first half which was their fewest on record in the opening 45 minutes of a World Cup match.

Morocco had seen a lot less of the ball but had created more chances and felt they ought to have gone in at half time leading. Had they done nobody would have been surprised such was their dominance.

They came out in the second period all guns blazing and Spain keeper Unai Simon had to react smartly to a dangerous cross. The Atlas Lions - the last team left from the Arab world in this tournament and the last team from Africa too - were supposed to be the underdogs but clearly nobody had told them as they continued to take the game to Spain. They continued to press high and harass and never let the Spaniards settle. They may have been one of the most surprising teams to reach the knockout stages, finishing top in a group with Croatia, Belgium and Canada, but they had earned the right and certainly did not look out of place.

Bidding to become just the fourth African team to reach the quarter-finals after Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 they began to tire as the second half wore on. It would have been impossible for them to continue with the intensity they had shown and Gavi began to find more time on the ball and started to pick out a few dangerous passes. With 10 minutes to go they had a glorious chance when substitute Nico Williams swung in a cross but Dani Olmo just failed to turn it in.

Spain lacked penetration and purpose but Morocco’s outstanding defensive effort had been a huge factor. With 90 minutes up the North Africans had made 19 tackles and five interceptions but were dropping deeper and deeper and in stoppage time they almost threw it away. Olmo flung in a free-kick which went through a crowd of players in the box and looked destined to nestle into the bottom corner but Bono palmed it away to take the match into extra time. It was such a fascinating contest and another 30 minutes was going to be very tense for both teams and both sets of fans. The lack of goalmouth action was obvious but the amount of passion and drama on display made up for that.

Off the post

Incredibly both sides still had enough left in the tank for more rapid raids forward as Morata had a chance blocked and then on the counter Azzedine Ounahi fed Walid Cheddira in the box but the Bari striker shot straight at the legs of Simon from 10 yards out. It was a huge escape for Spain but then they almost nicked it in injury time of extra time but Pablo Sarabia’s brilliant volley from an impossible angle hit the post.

It went to a penalty shootout and Abdelhamid Sabiri gave Morocco the lead with a confident strike into the bottom right corner. The pressure was now on Sarabia and the left-footer - who almost snatched it for Spain in extra time - struck the post. Ziyech stepped up and fired it straight down the middle to give Morocco a 2-0 lead before Carlos Soler saw his effort saved by Bono. But then Badr Benoun saw his weak effort stopped by Simon. But Bono saved from Spain captain Sergio Busquets and Hakimi cooly clipped his in to send Morocco deservedly into the quarter-finals.