Doha had become Marrakech. But with 70-odd minutes having passed us by in the deafening din of Education City, it had in a way become Moscow too.
Four years after passing themselves to death and exiting at the last 16 stage against Russia, this richly talented Spanish side were in danger of doing the same. Morocco were relentless and stoic and had threatened themselves in a tight first half but now were camped back. It was up to Luis Enrique to show us what had changed in four years since he took over from Fernando Hierro.
The answer: not enough. Morocco, the story of this first World Cup in the Arab world aren’t finished weaving their tale yet. Achraf Hakimi, a giant among many in ruby red, Panenkad the winning penalty just to add a flash of flair as the roof threatened to come clean off this place. Spain missed every one of theirs, Bono saving two after Pablo Sarabia, brought on solely to take one, hit the post with Spain’s first.
The Atlas Lions roar on, their swelling army given a few days to rest vocal chords to burst them all over again in the last eight. Qatar’s World Cup will see the European-South American quarter-final duopoly broken, in breathtaking fashion. For Spain, this was 1050 passes to nowhere. They’d racked up 1114 at the Luzhniki four years ago.
Doha had reverberated to a rich Moroccan red beat in recent days as they became the focus of all Arab affections. African too. Two vast swathes of the planet rowing in behind his team had provided inspiration rather than pressure for Regragui. He’d promised to “hoist our Moroccan flag— first and foremost for us and yes, for all Arabs and Africans.”
Outside the ground, police presence seemed to be significantly increased with clusters of Moroccan fans eagerly inquiring about tickets. There were reports of heavy-handed crowd management as kickoff approached. Inside, the noise from the Moroccan masses kicked up again. It was deafening.
A meeting of two fluid teams who approach their 4-3-3 systems with elasticity the priority but plenty of subtle differences, if styles make fights then this had the potential to be a doozy on the field too. But the fillet of the fight would likely hinge on each side’s anchor. Sofyan Amrabat had been one of the best middle men of the group stages. Opposite him but rarely too close as they both sat deep early on was Sergio Busquets, a veteran of a lifetime’s worth of these nights.
Spain’s pressing soon began to feel heavy on the Moroccans though. They made panicked choices. Bono’s footwork wasn’t inspiring confidence either. On 26 minutes, the pressure told with a critical error. Spain had the run of the box but Gavi inexplicably rattled the crossbar with the goal at his mercy. The offside flag saved some blushes but it was a wake-up call for Regragui’s side.
There had earlier been blushes for Marcos Llorente when he was twice embarrassed by Sofiane Boufal down Morocco’s left wing, jinking in and out and twisting the Atletico man’s ankles. It looked the most fertile ground for the Atlas Lions and the first shot on target it came from left back Mazraoui roaming in.
While Gavi and Pedri were flitting and finding pockets of space, Spain didn’t do much with it. Achraf Hakimi was keeping Dani Olmo in check and Morocco were able to dictate things, even when not in possession. They’d have liked to get Hakim Ziyech on the ball more but when the half’s best chance came there was little surprise that Boufal was at the heart of it.
When Hakimi’s deep cross was cleared out to him he controlled, jived inside Pedri and dug out a lovely curt cross that Nayef Aguerd met at the back post but strained his neck too forcefully and headed over.
Spain were having to be patient and Morocco were testing it. We didn’t realise how long they’d do so. Enrique resisted the urge to replace his false nine with a real one in the shape of Alvaro Morata and on we went.
The Hakimi-Olmo duel was captivating. Olmo stung Bono’s paws with a short free-kick routine 10 minutes after the break after being fouled by Hakimi and they kept at it.
On the hour, Enrique reached for Morata and Carlos Soler. Three minutes later Regragui responded with young Barcelona winger Adbe Ezzalzouli, raised in Spain like Hakimi and others. Just another edge to a game that was on a knife-edge.
The ball was a Spanish possession now, Morocco allowed brief moments with it. But we’ve been here before with Enrique’s side and his predecessors’ — sustained possession and territory against a stout defence. It hasn’t always ended well. They had 80 per cent possession when exiting at Russian hands four years ago.
Nico Williams was next in and quickly burst down the right to fire over a cross but again it didn’t threaten Bono’s goal. Morocco would break and remind Spain how precarious this all was. With four minutes to go Hakimi scorched down the right and crossed but substitute Walid Cheddira couldn’t properly connect. Those in ruby red all around this place were frantic.
When an injury-time free-kick found a wave of Moroccans and the ball pinged around the area, every heart in the stadium skipped a beat. The offside flag meant it was all for nought. There was still time for another scare as an Olmo free kick fizzed across the face of Bono’s goal but no one could connect and he palmed to safety. It would take another 30 minutes and more to find a winner.
Cheddira thought he had it as he raced in on Unai Simon four minutes into the extra 30. Aymeric Laporte, on a booking, robbed him at the last split-second with a heroic toe poke. Spain were getting wider and finding joy. The tempo was up again as Ansu Fati visibly lifted the Spanish. Cheddira, who was causing issues, wasted another glorious opening firing straight at Simon after lovely Moroccan play.
Having lost the impressive Aguerd to injury, captain Romain Saiss was now limping heavily too. Morocco bodies were on the line. The one up front could have ended it all. Cheddira bore down for a third time with six minutes to go only to do nothing with another great opening. Morata had one too but instead of going at the wounded Saiss, wandered the other direction and the chance went. For good measure Pablo Sarabia, subbed in for sub Williams. skewed one last chance wide.
Two hours and more had given us four shots on target. So now they’d have to hit it from the spot. Abdel Sabiri buried the first. Sarabia struck a post and the Spanish vibes felt off from the get-go. Ziyech coolly slotted his past Simon and when Carlos Soler saw his saved by Bono the Moroccans were already in ecstasy. They even had the luxury of a miss, Bad Benoun’s poor effort saved. But when Busquets brought another fine stop out of Bono, the race was up.
It was over to Hakimi, fittingly, to put the finish on it. He never faltered. He’d been a giant. Amrabat had arguably been better again. They’ll be building statues to them all back in Marrakech. But the tale ain’t told yet.
Unai Simon 7; Llorente 5, Rodri 7, Laporte 7, Alba 7 (Balde 98); Busquets 7, Pedri 7, Gavi 6 (Soler 64); Olmo 7 (Fati 98), Asensio 5 (Morata 64), Ferran 6 (Nico Williams 75; Sarabia 118).
Bounou 8, Hakimi 8, Aguerd 7 (El Yamiq 85), Saiss 7, Mazraoui 7 (Attiyat Allah 82), Ounahi 7 (Benoun 119), Amrabat 9, Amallah 6 (Cheddira 82), Ziyech 6, En-Nesyri 6 (Sabiri 82), Boufal 7 (Ezzalzouli 66).
Fernando Rapallini (Argentina) 7.