Kevin De Bruyne called it right, this ageing Belgium team have no chance of winning the World Cup on current form. Morocco succeeded where Canada failed in punishing another flat display from the team ranked second in the world to record their first victory at a World Cup since beating Scotland in 1998.
Two substitutes, Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal, scored the goals that gave Morocco only their third ever win on the World Cup stage and sparked wild celebrations all around the Al Thumama Stadium. It was thoroughly deserved. Morocco were incisive while Belgium lacked ideas, energetic while Belgium had lead in their legs, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard especially, and solid in defence while even Thibaut Courtois creaked in the Belgium goal. Roberto Martínez’s team can still qualify for the last 16 but they look a fading shadow of the side that finished third in Russia in 2018.
A stirring rendition of the Moroccan national anthem confirmed the vast majority of the stadium were supporting the north African team. Morocco’s every touch was met with impassioned screams; Belgium’s with jeers and whistles. Belgium attempted to take the sting out of the crowd by controlling the tempo and dominating possession, 78% of it in the opening 15 minutes alone. That is one way of describing the Belgian performance. Another is that they bored everyone to tears.
Martínez’s team initially responded to their laboured and lucky opening win over Canada. The Belgium manager reverted to a back four and made three changes including the introduction of Amadou Onana, who was largely responsible for the modest second-half improvement against the Canadians. This time they started on the front foot, with Michy Batshuayi forcing a fine early save out of Munir El Kajoui after latching on to Thorgan Hazard’s threaded pass into the box, but mostly it was possession football with no penetration.
Onana headed over from close range after meeting Thorgan Hazard’s inswinging corner with a towering leap. The Everton midfielder was also harshly booked for accidentally catching Azzedine Ounahi with an arm as they jumped for a header. Onana’s second booking of the competition means he will miss Belgium’s final group match against Croatia.
Morocco were forced to change their goalkeeper moments before kick-off when Yassine Bounou fell ill. Bono, as he is more commonly known, lined up for the national anthem but was replaced by the time Morocco gathered for their team photograph. “With or without you?” the Morocco head coach, Walid Regragui, might possibly have asked his first-choice keeper before summonsing El Kajoui from the bench.
Hakim Ziyech was hugely influential for a Morocco side whose confidence and sense of adventure increased as the contest developed. Pinpoint crossfield passes between the Chelsea winger on the right and former Southampton midfielder Sofiane Boufal on the left opened up the Belgium defence several times. Selim Amallah volleyed over after one such move while right-back Achraf Hakimi wasted a good opening when blazing wide from a tight angle with striker Youssef En-Nesyri waiting for a cross in the middle.
Morocco believed they had their first goal of the World Cup on the cusp of half-time after Ziyech was fouled by Thorgan Hazard just outside the penalty area. Ziyech took the free-kick himself and whipped it goalwards. Courtois, unsighted by the inrushing Morocco duo of Romain Saïss and Hakimi, was deceived by the flight and a possible touch off Saïss. The ball squirmed through his grasp and over the line but the Real Madrid keeper’s embarrassment, and the wild Morocco celebrations, were curtailed by VAR. Saïss’s shoulder was offside and the Mexican referee César Arturo Ramos disallowed Ziyech’s strike following a pitch-side review.
Courtois would not be spared when Morocco repeated the routine with 17 minutes of normal time remaining. After a Thomas Meunier foul on the right, substitute Sabiri drilled a free-kick towards Saïss moving in at the near post. The central defender, onside this time, pulled his midriff out of the way of Sabiri’s delivery and Belgium’s goalkeeper was deceived once again. The ball flew under his grasp and he would not be spared by VAR on this occasion.
Martínez had already made several substitutions in an attempt to inject an end product into Belgium’s display. They did not succeed, although El Kajoui answered his country’s call to save from Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Batshuayi.
Panic was rising in the stands as Belgium pressed for a late equaliser and five minutes of stoppage time were added. It turned to pandemonium when Ziyech escaped down the right and pulled the ball back for Aboukhlal who, allowed too much space inside the area by Axel Witsel, swept a superb finish in to the top corner. Morocco’s exhausted players collapsed to the ground when the final whistle sounded minutes later. They were soon back on their feet to join the party in the stands.