Morocco defeat Spain in a penalty shootout to advance to the World Cup Quarter Finals (Photo: FIFA World Cup/Twitter)

In the penultimate knockout game in the Round of 16, Morocco have upset Spain on penalties to advance to the World Cup Quarter Finals.

Going into the game Morocco were hoping to continue their giant killing exploits from the group stages where they upset Belgium and drew with Croatia. The Education City Stadium was electric, as the crowd’s support made the atmosphere feel like a Moroccan home game.

In the opening minutes, Spain played possessional football while Morocco sat back with the whole team behind the ball, a staple of many underdog teams this tournament.

When out of possession the Spanish pressed their opponents to force mistakes. Spain’s full backs, wingers and central midfielders rotated roles to gain more dominance in the half spaces, but unlike their 7-0 victory over Costa Rica, they had a much tougher time breaking the Moroccan low block.

Mid-way into the half Spain started to find their openings, but with no recognised striker on the field they struggled to find the finishing touch. Although the Spanish had 69% possession in the first half, they made very little progress as they were aware of the counter attacking threat of the Moroccans.

At the closing stages of the first half, Morocco seemed to be the more likely to break the deadlock with Sofiane Boufal pulling the strings on the left wing. However, the scores remained goalless at the break.

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The second half started similar to the first as Morocco continued to stay behind the ball. Spain continued to press with a little more urgency in their passing and they began to find gaps in the Moroccan defence, but with striker Álvaro Morata sat on the bench there was still no focal point.

Realising a change needed to be made, Luis Enrique brought Morata into the game for Marco Asensio in the 63rd minute.

As the second half progressed Morocco appeared to tire, with a few stray passes starting to creep into their play. Morocco manager Walid Regragui realised that fatigue was setting into the team, as he made three substitutions in the 82nd minute along with one more two minutes later.

Morata started to find spaces in behind and created a different type of threat. After two dangerous set pieces in normal time the deadlock was still unbroken, sending the game into extra time.

During extra time Morocco were still solid in defence, with Enrique throwing everything at it. Ansu Fati added pace to the attack and it gave Spain another focal point as he would run behind the tired centre backs.

With few chances in the first half of extra time, substitute Walid Cheddira missed a golden opportunity to put Morocco in front in the 104th minute, as he hit the ball straight at Unai Simón after being clean through on goal.

Spain were desperate to score in the second half of extra time as they threw everything at the defence but to no avail. Although they started to catch Morocco on the counter they failed to find the back of the net. Spanish substitute Pablo Sarabia hit the post in the final attack of extra time before the game went to penalties.

Spain’s shootout record in recent tournaments had not been successful, losing on penalties to Italy in the semi final of the 2021 Euros and exiting the 2018 World Cup in the same way to Russia.

Morocco were first to the spot and Abdelhamid Sabiri calmly slotted the ball into the net, sending Simón the wrong way. Sarabia was the first to step up for Spain, he struck the ball well but hit the upright.

Morocco scored their next penalty to further add pressure on Spain, substitute Carlos Soler subsequently had his penalty saved by Moroccan keeper Yassine Bounou to make the penalty count 2-0 to Morocco.

Spain had a glimmer of hope as Badr Benoun missed his spot kick, however Sergio Busquets failed to capitaise as he had his penalty saved.

Achraf Hakimi stepped up to take the next penalty, knowing that a goal would result in a Moroccan victory and with ice in his veins, he chipped the goalkeeper to send Morocco to the World Cup Quarter Finals for the first time in their history.

Once again Spanish hearts were broken in a penalty shootout.

Morocco will face the winner of the Portugal vs Switzerland game that takes place a few hours after this match, still only conceding one goal for the whole tournament.

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