Morocco made history on Thursday, defeating Canada 2-1 to top Group F and become the sole Arab team to make the second round of the 2022 World Cup and also the first from the region to do so for a second time, 36 years after doing so back in 1986.
This time was more impressive. After that famous 2-0 win over Belgium on Sunday, the Atlas Lions needed just a point against the already-eliminated North Americans and raced into a 2-0 lead by the midway point of the first half.
They spent much of the second half on the backfoot but can now look forward to playing in the last 16 against Germany, Spain or Japan.
It was almost a perfect group stage with seven points collected. The opening game against the talented Croatians ended goalless, a solid result that provided the platform for the victory over Belgium, the team ranked second in the world. It meant that, barring slip-ups, Morocco could start to think about the last 16.
Going through was not just celebrated by the many thousands of fans at the Al-Thumama Stadium and millions back home, but it was vindication for the decision to dismiss Vahid Halilhodzic as head coach in August. In came Walid Regragui who has not only restored Hakim Ziyech to the team but tightened up the defense to an impressive degree.
The own goal that came off the boot of Nayef Aguerd just before the break that gave the Canadians a chance to get back in the game was the first that Morocco had conceded in seven games under Regragui. Paris Saint-Germain star Achraf Hakimi may get many headlines, but Romain Saiss has been a rock in the middle and Sofyan Amrabat adept at spotting opposition danger. The positioning and commitment of the backline and those sitting just in front have been excellent.
Welcoming Ziyech back into the fold may not exactly have been a difficult decision for Regragui, but the wideman has grown more influential in every game in Qatar, and his fourth-minute goal was harder than it looked.
Poor Canadian defending left goalkeeper Milan Borjan stranded outside his area, and a first-time chip from Ziyech from around 30 meters out found the net with the kind of cool finish that only a player at the top of his game can produce.
It took the sting out of the game and Morocco were well on top, extending the lead as Youssef En-Nesyri fired home emphatically. The game looked to be as good as over, but just before the break came Aguerd’s own goal, a low cross diverted past Yassine Bounou in goal. If that was frustrating, so was a disallowed goal moments later as Aguerd was ruled to have been in the line of the goalkeeper’s vision from an offside position as En-Nesyri shot home.
So, instead of 2-0 or 3-1, it was a little closer. It was not time for panic stations, but the scoreline did give Canada, playing for pride after two defeats and looking for a first-ever World Cup point, hope.
They came firing out of the traps in the second half and spent a great deal more time in the Moroccan half. After 72 minutes, a Canadian header hit the bar and bounced right on the goal line. In some ways, this was the Africans’ toughest game, and the pressure they were put under in the second half may stand them in good stead for the tests ahead.
It meant that instead of thinking about which of his players to bring off and rest ahead of the second-round clash, coach Regragui had to stay focused on ensuring that his team did not do anything silly and kept their focus.
Yet thoughts of the next stage were surely never that far away. Winning the group is welcome symbolically, is good for confidence and means a second-round game on Tuesday as opposed to Monday. Their opponents remain to be seen, but after their first stage performance, there is no reason to fear Spain, Germany, Japan or anyone else.
It should be remembered that this group was seen as a tricky one. It contained the runner-up and third-placed team from Russia 2018, and Canada finished top of CONCACAF’s qualification stage.
Morocco deserved to finish top of the standings and to take all the plaudits. History has been made, but there is surely more to come from this talented team especially now that they are flying the flag for Arab football.