Key events

What do those teams mean? Selim Amallah for Abdelhamid Sabiri is in midfield Morocco’s only change but Luis Enrique has made five changes from the team that lost to Japan on Thursday, the most significant being Alvaro Morata being benched for Marco Asensio. Pau Torres steps down, as Aymeric Laporte comes into defence. Marcos Llorente, Jordi Alba and Ferran Torres all come in, as Cesar Azpilicueta, Alejandro Balde and Nico Williams drop out.

A potential for problems here. Let’s hope it all goes ahead safely.

Today’s Football Daily hones in on the samba showboaters.

The teams

Morocco: Bounou, Hakimi, Aguerd, Saiss, Mazraoui, Ounahi, Amrabat, Amallah, Ziyech, En-Nesyri, Boufal. Subs: Hamdallah, Zaroury, Sabiri, Mohamedi, Chair, Aboukhlal, Ezzalzouli, El Yamiq, Dari, Cheddira, Tagnaouti, El Khannous, Benoun,
Attiyat Allah, Jabrane.

Spain: Simon, Llorente, Rodri, Laporte, Jordi Alba, Gavi, Busquets, Gonzalez, Ferran Torres, Asensio, Olmo. Subs: Sanchez, Azpilicueta, Garcia, Pau Torres, Morata, Koke, Williams, Raya, Balde, Guillamon, Pino, Carlos Soler, Carvajal, Sarabia, Fati.

Referee: Fernando Rapallini (Argentina)

It’s been quite the year for Spain and Chelsea’s veteran defender.

When Azpilicueta played in Spain’s 5-0 win against Slovakia at Euro 2020 in June 2021, it was his first game for the selección since 2018. Now, he is at his third World Cup, even if it almost ended early. Withdrawn with a knock that will not prevent him facing Morocco, he watched Japan come back to win 2-1. For a few minutes in the second half, Spain were out – “there were a lot of nerves,” Azpilicueta says – but Kai Havertz led Germany’s response against Costa Rica, rescuing seeing Spain and sending them through to play Morocco. Time to say thanks, then?

This will be a huge game in Ceuta, the part of Spain that is pretty much in Morocco.

Perhaps Morocco’s leading player, Achraf Hakimi, was born in Madrid, and was almost denied the chance to play for Morocco.

I think Fifa was only checking rare names from immigrants more than where the boy was born, which is what happened with him,” said Rabie Takassa, who works as a scout in Spain for the Moroccan Football Federation, in an interview in 2017. “They saw a Moroccan name and he was punished without deserving it. Real Madrid and his family gave all the papers required showing he was born in a hospital in Madrid, that he studied here, that he spent all his life growing up here. It was a complicated time for him because he didn’t know when Fifa would give him the green light to play again.

Luis Enrique, the Spain coach, has been discussing penalties. His team exited Euro 2020 in 2021 at the semi-final stage via spot-kicks.

I imagine that they have done their homework. Over a year ago, in one of the Spain camps, I told them they had to get here with at least 1,000 penalties taken,” Enrique said.

If you wait until getting here to practise penalties… [it won’t be enough]. It’s a moment of maximum tension, a time to show your nerve and that you can shoot the penalty in the way you have decided, if you have trained it a thousand times.

It says a lot about each player. It’s trainable, manageable, how you manage the tension. It’s increasingly less luck – the goalkeepers have more influence. We have a very good goalkeeper, any of the three can do very well in this situation. Every time we finish training, I see a lot of players taking penalties.

This match is a huge deal for Morocco’s fans.

Per Reuters:

Morocco’s matches have also been testing for organisers: there was pushing and shoving outside the stadium as ticketless fans gathered ahead of its Dec. 1 defeat of Canada, with some trying to climb the fence.

Desperate to attend the match against 2010 champions Spain, more than 1,000 Moroccan fans gathered at the official ticketing office on Monday night. Reuters journalists saw at least two scuffles and riot police deploy as the crowd swelled.

One fan said many had left empty-handed.

Some said they had come after seeing social media posts saying the Moroccan embassy and football association would distribute free tickets. Reuters could not reach the Moroccan football federation for comment.

The Moroccan embassy said on Twitter that it had handed out 500 tickets to Moroccans living in Qatar. The Moroccan football team’s official Facebook page had said FIFA had made 5,000 extra tickets available for Morocco fans.

“Atlas Lions carry hopes of a whole continent,” the Moroccan newspaper Maroc Le Jour declared in a front-page headline.

Royal Air Maroc said on Friday it was laying on four extra flights with 270-340 fans on each.

The Moroccan consulate has asked fans to “show sportsmanship regardless of the result” and to avoid doing anything that could trigger incidents with Spanish fans.

Walid Regragui, the Morocco coach, spoke at a news conference on Monday. Morocco are in their first last-16 match since Mexico 86.

It’s going to be a very difficult game against one of the best teams in the world, they’re among the top favourites. We have, however, our own qualities, and we’ve had an extra day of recuperation. If we can knock them out, it will be a big surprise.

I told the players, before the World Cup, we’re playing only finals here. We’ve played three finals in the group phase and now it’s our fourth final. I loved our second half against Canada, when we stuck to our plan and were extremely concentrated. Against Spain, we’ll have to play the whole game like this.

We haven’t been at that level for 36 years, so me and my staff will have to manage the players’ emotions. It is the biggest game of our history but I hope the biggest will be the next one. Our elders cannot replay their game against West Germany while the Spain game is ahead of us.

I will tell the players to enjoy themselves, as millions in Morocco will be watching. We have to accept that Spain will have possession. We have our strengths, we abandoned possession to Belgium and Croatia and it worked well. Our plan is that they don’t know what to do with the ball.

Preamble

This may be an intercontinental match, but it is still something of a local affair. As anyone who has been to southern Spain knows, Morocco is just across the water, not much of a ferry ride across the Med from Algeciras or the like, just past the Rock of Gibraltar. And yet the teams have rarely met, just three previous times. They met in a qualifying double-header for the 1962 World Cup and then four years ago in Russia in the group stage.

Morocco are carrying Africa’s pride at this tournament, as the last left from their continent, and also the Arab world. Should Spain prevail, then the last eight will have rather familiar, predictable look to it. It falls to Morocco, one of the best supported teams in Qatar, to add an element of the unfamiliar to the quarter-finals. Are they capable of it? Yes, they could be well be. They are one of the very few unbeaten teams left, and dealt very well with Croatia, beat the Belgians comfortably and then did a decent number on Canada, too. With two high-class full-backs, Achraf Hakimi, born in Madrid, and Noussair Mazraoui as well as Hakim Ziyech, showing why Chelsea have not got the best of them, they have talent, and determination.

Spain, after winning 7-0, have done what Spain used to do before 2008-2010-2012 and look flaky after being brilliant. Their loss to Japan saw them pay for the lack of a cutting edge, and their reward was facing the Moroccans, against whom they have been drawn in one of the most interesting ties of the second round.

Kick-off is 3pm UK time/ 6pm Qatar-Mecca time. Join me.

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