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Can Atlas Lions devour Spain?

BY: Daily Graphic
Alvaro Morata - Spain left and Hakim Ziyech - Morocco
Alvaro Morata - Spain left and Hakim Ziyech - Morocco

The penultimate World Cup 2022 last-16 battle takes place at the Education City Stadium this afternoon as Morocco pit their wits against Spain.

La Roja finished second in Group E to set up a tie with their African counterparts, who fended off Croatia and Belgium to finish first in Group F.

With the golden generation of Belgium underperforming and 2018 runners-up Croatia struggling to find a consistent attacking spark, Morocco took full advantage to claim a surprising first-place finish in Group F with seven points from nine on offer.

Even in their goalless draw with Croatia, the plaudits largely went to Walid Regragui's men, who followed that point up with successive wins over Belgium and Canada to become one of the only two African teams in the last 16 of the World Cup - the other being Senegal.

During their match day three encounter with Canada, Hakim Ziyech took advantage of a blunder from Milan Borjan to chip the Canucks goalkeeper from distance in the fourth minute, and Youssef En-Nesyri put the icing on the cake before a Nayef Aguerd own goal gave the Canadians a slight glimmer of hope.

Resilient Atlas Lions

However, the Atlas Lions held on for the three points that would send them through to the knockout stages as group winners and the 2022 tournament marks only the second time that Morocco have got this far, having been eliminated in the last 16 in 1986.

Now riding the wave of an eight-game unbeaten run in all competitions - during which time they have only conceded two goals - Regragui's men are out to become the first Morocco side to reach the quarter-finals, and they could also match continental history, as their four-game unbeaten run at the World Cup can only be beaten by Cameroun's five between 1982 and 1990 out of all the African nations.

Spain’s performance

Luis Enrique did not pull any punches as his side failed to hang on to a one-goal lead against Japan on the final matchday in Group E, where Alvaro Morata's 11th-minute opener ultimately counted for very little against Hajime Moriyasu and his perennial super subs.

Unai Simon let a long-range effort from Ritsu Doan seep through his gloves as Japan restored parity three minutes after the restart and only three minutes later, Ao Tanaka prodded home the winner after Kaoru Mitoma had only just managed to keep the ball in play.

Many had argued over whether Mitoma had prevented the whole of the ball from going over the whole of the line, but the score line was the only statistic that mattered, as Spain dropped to second in Group E and only better than Germany on goal difference.

Had La Roja placed first in the section, they would be tackling Croatia in the last 16, so finishing as runners-up may be seen as a blessing in disguise by some, but Enrique is under no illusions as to how difficult today's match will be.

Spain were eliminated from the 2018 World Cup in the last 16 but they have never suffered back-to-back exits at this point of the competition and their tally of nine goals in the group stage was the joint-highest alongside England.

Morocco and Spain will be locking horns in the World Cup four years on from meeting in the group stages in Russia, where La Roja were indebted to a late Iago Aspas equaliser in a 2-2 draw, and a similarly close contest should be on the menu at the Education City Stadium.
— Sportsmole