After 17 successive days of football at the Qatar World Cup, there is finally a couple of days break after the last two Round of Sixteen fixtures were played on Tuesday 6 December, to complete the quarter-final line-up.
As has been the case in many of the knock-out games, there was terrific drama, with a major shock in one of the matches, and a flood of goals in the other. These games will be played on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 December.
Moroccans offered Spanish an opportunity to progress… or so they thought
Morocco surprised a lot of pundits by finishing top of their group, helping to eliminate the much-fancied, but ultimately hugely disappointing Belgians, along the way. When Spain slipped up against the Japanese in their final group game, it meant they slipped to second spot and they probably were secretly thinking that it was a blessing in disguise, and that by being placed in a tie with the North Africans, it had given them a great opportunity to progress to the quarter-finals.
Disciplined North Africans execute game plan perfectly
Opportunity yes; but those opportunities have to be taken, and can only be done so if the approach and mind-set is correct. The Spanish never really got going and were unable to break down a stubborn, well-drilled defence. There has been a nagging feeling throughout this tournament that Spain were lacking something, and this was probably a World Cup too soon for a few of their emerging talents. That is definitely what it seemed against the Moroccans as neither side could penetrate the other, and the game drifted into extra-time.
Spanish born Moroccan seals shock victory
In added on time at the end of the additional 30 minutes Spain’s Pablo Sarabia found himself unmarked, but could only steer his shot against the post and the tie went to penalties. Incredibly, Sarabia took the Spaniards first kick and struck the opposite post. Two more weak penalties were missed, which left Achraf Hakimi, the Spanish-born ex-Real Madrid right-back, who had chosen his Moroccan heritage above the country of his birth, to step forward with the responsibility to seal a moment of history for the North African nation.
If any nerves were present he did not show them as he coolly dinked his spot kick down the middle of the goal, to spark wild scenes of celebration, both on the pitch and in the stands. Manager Walid Regragui was understandably thrilled with his team’s disciplined display of determination, in front of a passionate following who he said gave the players added energy to their performance.
Congratulations sent by the King
He then confirmed he had received a telephone call from the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, after the game. “He always encourages us, and his message is always the same, he is proud of the players.” The coach explained that their game plan was to frustrate as much as possible, to restrict space, and not play too high up the pitch, which he said his team had executed brilliantly.
They didn’t have long to wait to discover that their opponents in the quarter finals will be Spain’s neighbours, Portugal; whose coach Fernando Santos had taken the brave decision before hand to drop superstar Ronaldo, who had shown disrespect after being substituted against South Korea in their last match. It could have back-fired, but it actually was a master-stroke.
Replacement is a hat-trick hero
His replacement, 21-year-old Benfica striker Gonçalo Ramos, had a sensational game, scoring a superb hat-trick as Portugal suddenly found their rhythm, and when that happens their football purrs. Ramos and veteran defender Pepe had the Portuguese two goals up at half time and when the young striker added a third just after the break, it was effectively game over. More goals were added with the eventual scoreline finishing at 6-1.
Keeping the bench warm
There was time for Ronaldo to come on for the last 20 minutes, but the performance without him was sharper and he will in all probability have to sit out the quarter-final too, as changing the side after such a sparkling display, would possibly sent out the wrong message.
Massive footballing nation awaits winners
The contest between Morocco and Portugal will take place on 10 December at the Al Thumama Stadium and the winners will face the victors of a mighty clash, immediately after the conclusion of their game. England face old rivals France at the Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday night in a game that promises to be an epic encounter.
Clash of the South American power-houses a distinct possibility
On the other side of the draw, it is Europe against South America, as the Netherlands take on Argentina at the Lusail Stadium; and the favourites Brazil tackle an awkward Croatia side at the Education City Stadium, with both matches taking place on 9 December. Most football fans, outside of the two European nations involved, would love to see the two major powers of South America come together for what would be a titanic clash.
Four great superstars in the semis?
Messi against Naymar would be the side issue, but a semi-final line up that included those two; plus maybe Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe, would see the footballing world treated to possibly the four best players of the past few years; although England are very capable of preventing that from happening. They may well have an emerging superstar of their own, in Jude Bellingham. The 19-year-old has emerged as a contender for player of the tournament and is destined for greatness.
The football finally emerges
After all the controversy leading up to the tournament, football is at last the main focus, and the last eight teams are set to give the watching audience a feast of entertainment and drama.