Rabat - With Morocco disqualified after two consecutive losses in its first two games, and Spain almost assured of a qualifying spot for the knockout stage, the Spain vs. Morocco match this Monday had a lot less at stake compared to both teams’ previous matches.
Rabat – With Morocco disqualified after two consecutive losses in its first two games, and Spain almost assured of a qualifying spot for the knockout stage, the Spain vs. Morocco match this Monday had a lot less at stake compared to both teams’ previous matches.
And yet, Spain wanted group leadership in order to be matched against Russia, deemed less dangerous than Uruguay; Morocco, for their part, were playing for honor and pride, to wash away the misfortune and “injustice” that had tarnished the quality and beauty of their two other performances.
“We will prepare for this game like any other,” Coach Hervé Renard said yesterday in the pre-match news conference. “We are ready to fight like Lions for the honor of Morocco.”
That Morocco had the technique and the squad it took to make this a painful last match for Spain had already been acknowledged by both Spanish midfielder Busquets and Coach Fernando Hierro. Football, they said, had been “unfair” to Morocco whose quality “deserved more than the zero points they have.”
Morocco’s buildup and ball circulation had been beautiful throughout the tournament. The connection between the midfield and the flanks had been impeccable, although they had failed to turn their beautiful game into mathematical advantage. Spain knew that, sensed it, prepared for it, and played accordingly.
Hence, what a terrific night it was in Kaliningrad! What an exquisite show of footballing masterstrokes from both sides!
In the first minutes of the game, Morocco, mindful of the ball possession-leaning football that makes the outstanding might of the Spaniards, pressed high. They ran tirelessly, trying to stop Spanish midfield and attack transitions.
Spain’s Isco was excellent; Iniesta was brilliant; Alba was magisterially present on the flanks; but Morocco would not just allow for the possession to distract their game. So they pressed when necessary and made an immaculate use of the ball when they possessed it.
Their determination and drive paid off at the 14th minute when another high and bold Moroccan pressure culminated in a certain panic in the Spanish defense, ending in a ball loss very unlike Spain.
Morocco’s Boutaib, whom Renard preferred to El Kaabi for tonight, could not miss this. He outran the entire Spanish defense, beautifully lodging the ball pass between De Gea’s legs.
With a 1-nil score for Morocco, Moroccans at the Kaliningrad Stadium were exuberant. The stadium felt like playing at home in Casablanca.
But no sooner had Morocco’s celebration of the goal ended than Spain regained supremacy in the middle, supremely passing the ball as if it were a toddler’s toy. The higher Morocco pressed, the more Spain kept the ball, trying hard to find a crack in Morocco’s tactical disposition.
Isco’s beautiful low-range finish came at the 19th minute after another terrific one-two moment with Iniesta.
At half time, the 1-1 scoreline reflected the game, as Spain’s ball possession was marked by Amrabat and Harit’s spotless performances on the flanks, their seemingly boundless energy gave Morocco an aura of constant danger.
Refreshed, both teams entered the second half with the same tempo as before. Spain’s 75% ball possession was always met by Morocco’s counterattacks, the intelligent touches and circulation whenever they had the ball at their disposal.
For almost 80 minutes, it looked as though the match would end in a draw, but 1-1 would not be the final score.
En-Nesyri’s 81st minute header delivered temporary victory to Morocco, sure that with 9 minutes left they could secure it, a beautiful end to a saga of pain and misfortune.
But Spain was unyielding, pressuring, restless, angry, and hungry for a goal. The air was heavy, smelling of a goal at any time before the final whistle.
Spain had come looking for victory. “Morocco has a technical team. They are very good. But our aim is to play well, score, and win,” the Spanish coach had said before the game.
Now, though, victory was not what they were striving for. They wanted a draw, at whatever price. As the end drew near, Morocco’s elation was palpable. They were out of the tournament. But what else can be more beautiful, braver, than deservedly beating Spain in the last game?
But that final victory eluded them, for Spain’s Aspas, who had just entered the game to replace Diego Costa, scored a last minute goal in stoppage time. The referee first disallowed it, before accepting that it was a goal after consulting the video assistant referee (VAR) intervention.
At some stage in their disappointing tournament, Morocco had to deliver an uplifting performance, and this match was it. Amrabat’s beautifully shot 54th rocket would have rendered Morocco wild and given them a raucous victory over one of the footballing heavy weights, but, as Busquets said before the game, “football can sometimes be unfair.”
But with a rather terrific 2-2 draw with Spain, football can be said to have been unfair to Morocco (there was a handball from Piqué that the referee did not see), but tonight the unfairness was beautiful, ravishing, delightful.
With tonight’s game, Group B has completed its round of matches with Spain topping the group, followed by Portugal, Iran, and Morocco.