Morocco are through to the last 16 of the World Cup for the second time after early goals from Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri brushed aside whatever suspense remained of their progress, sealing a nightmarish exit to a tournament for Canada that began with so much promise eight nights ago.
The mighty Atlas Lions entered the group-stage finale on a tailwind of confidence, having followed a cagey goalless draw with Croatia with an emphatic 2-0 win over the second-ranked Belgians and needing only a point to book a place in the knockout stage for the first time in nearly four decades. They finished it, owing to Croatia’s draw with Belgium across town, the improbable winners of a group above of a pair of European giants fresh off runs to the last four in 2018.
“We said we wanted to give everything we’ve got to get out of the group stages,” said Walid Regragui, three months after he was appointed Morocco’s manager. “We can tick that box now. So why not aim for the sky? We needed to change and we needed to change our mentality. We’re not going to stop here. We’ve got a lot of respect for all of the different opponents, but we are going to be a very difficult team to beat.”
Les Rouges, who were picked apart by Croatia and eliminated from the competition after outplaying Belgium in their opener, appeared out of sorts from the start here amid a hostile atmosphere that jeered their every touch. Morocco needed only four minutes to send their supporters into delirium as Steven Vitoria’s undercooked backpass to Milan Borjan forced the goalkeeper to dash from his penalty area with En-Nesyri closing in. A harried Borjan played it directly to the Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech, who chipped in from 35 yards and ignited the mass of red packed into the stadium’s south end – the howler of the tournament and surely the nadir of Canada’s first World Cup appearance since their largely forgettable debut in 1986.
Canada were able to get their feet under them but failed to generate a meaningful threat from their possession and set pieces and it was not long before Morocco were bossing the midfield again. They doubled their margin after 22 minutes through En-Nesyri, when the Sevilla striker chased down a long ball from the back, darted between a pair of defenders and beat Borjan at his near post to become the first Moroccan player to score in two World Cups.
There were remnants from Canada of the pace and industry that powered their swaggering performance against Belgium, but they were constantly done in by lack of organisation from front to back, unable to string together more than a few passes or long stretches of the first half. Their woes were embodied by an inability to get their star Alphonso Davies involved as the 22-year-old Bayern Munich star was constantly denied service by Morocco’s swarming defenders.
The well-drilled Morocco backline marshaled by Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi were one of two teams left in the competition, along with Brazil, who had yet to concede. But Canada pulled one back six minutes before half-time when Nayef Aguerd blocked a cross from the left past his keeper inside the near post, the first own goal of the tournament and a cruel end to Morocco’s run of six successive clean sheets.
With nothing left to play for but the chance to end their tournament on a high note and set a winning tone for when they co-host four years from now, Canada’s fighting spirit shone through during the second half as John Herdman – the manager from Consett in County Durham – made a triple substitution at the hour and threw numbers forward with abandon.
They came agonisingly close to an equaliser when a header by the ageless captain Atiba Hutchinson – the oldest outfield player in Qatar – rattled the bar and caromed down on the goalline. But Morocco’s rigid backline refused to budge, ensuring Africa’s record sixth win at a World Cup while becoming the first team from the continent to take first place in a World Cup group since Nigeria in 1998.
“We’ve raised our bar finishing top of Concacaf and I thought that was a good standard to bring in,” Herdman said. “We always said the world level is the next level and I don’t think we were far off. Two inches tonight. Two inches from getting our first result. That’s all it was.”