DOHA, Qatar -- Morocco booked their spot in the knockout phase of the World Cup thanks to a 2-1 victory over Canada at Al Thumama Stadium on Thursday.
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Hakim Ziyech punished poor Canadian defending to delicately chip home from 35 yards into an unguarded net for their opener, while Youssef En-Nesyri doubled their lead in the 23rd minute with a powerful finish. Canada pulled a goal back just before the break with Nayef Aguerd turning the ball into his own net.
Canada were the better of the two teams in the second half, and came close with Atiba Hutchinson's header striking the bar and then the line -- and they leave this World Cup with zero points but plenty of admirers for their performances and ambition.
For Morocco, this win means they top Group F and equal their best finish at a World Cup, after the 1986 team reached the round of 16 in Mexico.
JUMP TO: Player ratings | Best/worst performers | Highlights and notable moments | Postmatch quotes | Key stats | Upcoming fixtures
1. Morocco's stars all deliver when it counts
On a night where Morocco were within touching distance of their second foray into the World Cup knockout stages, they needed their big stars to shine. Achraf Hakimi was brilliant while fellow wing-back Noussair Mazraoui was outstanding on the opposite flank. Then there was the trickery and brilliance of Ziyech, and the barnstorming runs of En-Nesyri.
Hakimi and Mazraoui have to be in with a shout of being the best full-back duo at this World Cup, and though Mazraoui is playing away from his usual right-back spot, he has performed brilliantly on the left. Hakimi's pass for En-Nesyri's first-half strike was pitch perfect, while they did a brilliant job of keeping Canada's attacking threats at bay. While Alphonso Davies was predominantly playing through the middle, Mazrouai and Hakimi did well to shut down the half spaces and ensured any potential danger with the ball at his feet was often nullified before he had a chance to get going.
At the other end, Ziyech's opener was a wonderfully judged piece of skill. The goal was gaping, after Canada goalkeeper Milan Borjan found himself with the ball at his feet outside his 18-yard-box and, instead of hoofing it out of the stadium, he planted it straight to Ziyech's feet. Some 35 yards out, Ziyech nonchalantly chipped it into the empty net. It looked simple, but some players panic in that situation and fluff the chance.
En-Nesyri was unlucky not to have two first-half goals. He took his first brilliantly, as Hakimi's arching through ball bisected two Canada defenders to allow En-Nesyri to run on to it. His physicality, pace and poise meant he only needed one touch to set himself before rifling the ball past Borjan at the near post. He had the ball in the net again just before half-time, but this was (harshly) ruled out by the referee's assistant with Aguerd judged to be offside and in the line of sight of Borjan.
2. Atlas Lions should not fear their next opponents
Morocco's class of 2022 have a chance to be history makers in Qatar. They will likely face Germany or Japan in the round of 16 and, judging by how they dismantled Belgium and the first half of this performance, they are more than capable of reaching the quarterfinals.
There will be aspects they need to improve. They were too passive in the third quarter and allowed Canada far too much possession. Communication also let them down for Canada's first-half goal, with Aguerd's attempt to block a cross ending up in his own net.
Then there was their extremely lucky escape in the second half, as Atiba Hutchinson's header struck the crossbar, bounced down, hit the line and then somehow the rebound was headed over the top of the goal. If they are to surpass their previous best finish at a World Cup of a round-of-16 exit, then they have to cancel out those errors and lapses of concentration.
So to create history and reach the last eight, they must combine the intensity, focus and set-piece prowess of the Belgium win with the transitional excellence we saw against Canada for that second goal, as they turned a fairly ordinary passage of play into a goal-scoring chance thanks to Hakimi's wondrous pass.
And then there's the added fear factor of their wonderful fans. You cannot underestimate the noise they generate in the stadium -- they had Al Thumama rocking from the outset and, as glorious as that must be to have that cacophonous roar behind you, it must be very intimidating for the opposition.
3. Canada will have mixed emotions as campaign ends
Canada wanted to accomplish six goals for this World Cup, according to manager John Herdman. They wanted to grab Canada men's first goal in a World Cup, he wanted them to show up "fearless" and to "entertain," he said the day before the match against Morocco. He also wanted the team to "keep a clean sheet," "get a result" and "get a win." So it seems only fair to judge them by their own criteria. They scored two goals, so job done there. They were fearless -- just look at how they played Belgium, and tried to attack Croatia. And they certainly entertained -- Alphonso Davies' goal against Croatia was a wonderful move. But they fell short of the other three.
Heading into this final group-stage match, they already knew they were out. But this match still had huge importance attached to it -- especially with their next World Cup match being as joint-hosts in 2026. They badly wanted that win to break the men's team's losing streak at a World Cup -- having lost all three of their group matches in 1986, and were zero from two from into this match. We've seen them play courageously and they were lucky not to take a point, at least, off Belgium. They failed to live up to Herdman's brash assertion they were going to "F Croatia" as they fell 4-1 to the 2018 finalists, distinctly second best. But perhaps this was going to be the match where they created their own slice of Canadian history.
But it was not to be. It was not for want of trying, but they put themselves on the back foot with that calamitous Ziyech goal and from then on they were chasing shadows. They had more possession in the second half and how they'll lament their luck as Hutchinson's header somehow stayed the wrong side of the line. Had the ball bounced differently, and there been a bit more conviction, Canada could have got that elusive "result" they were after.
Player ratings (1 = worst, 10 = best)
Canada: Milan Borjan 5, Alistair Johnston 6, Kamal Miller 6, Steven Vitoria 6, Sam Adekugbe 6, Mark-Anthony Kaye 6, Jonathan Osorio 5, Alphonso Davies 7, Cyle Larin 5, Tajon Buchanan 6, Junior Hoilett 7.
Subs: Jonathan David 6, Atiba Hutchinson 7, Ismael Kone 6, Richie Laryea 6, David Wotherspoon 6.
Morocco: Yassine Bounou 6, Achraf Hakimi 8, Nayef Aguerd 6, Romain Saiss 6, Noussair Mazraoui 7, Sofyan Amrabat 7, Azzedine Ounahi 6, Abdelhamid Sabiri 6, Hakim Ziyech 7, Sofiane Boufal 7, Youssef En-Nesyri 7.
Subs: Zakaria Aboukhlal 5, Selim Amallah 6, Yahya Jabrane, Abderrazak Hamdallah 5, Jawad El Yamiq 6.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Achraf Hakimi
The Paris Saint-Germain full-back was outstanding for Morocco. He was an attacking threat and, when his team struggled to get out of their own half, Hakimi's defensive work was superb in keeping Canada at bay.
WORST: Milan Borjan
It's harsh, as apart from that error, he had a solid game and even put in a decent cross when joining the attack in second-half stoppage time, but for his role in the first goal with his poor clearance it has to be the goalkeeper.
Highlights and notable moments
Ziyech's long-range opener with Borjan stranded was the worst possible start for Canada.
Another look at the play that gifted Morocco an early goal vs Canada 👀🇲🇦 pic.twitter.com/ebXhoLXN6i— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 1, 2022
En-Nesyri then gave Morocco what proved to be the winning goal with his blistering pace and sharp finish.
TWO FOR MOROCCO 🇲🇦— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 1, 2022
What a start 🔥 pic.twitter.com/jxeP42czX9
Canada came this close to claiming their first-ever point at a men's World Cup finals.
Canada was INCHES away from tying the game 🤯 pic.twitter.com/hPuR3E4cFf— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 1, 2022
After the match: What the players and managers said
Canada coach John Herdman: "Our players have turned up to compete. We've been fearless across each of the three games -- each of the games we've had something to celebrate. We're a young team, we're developing, we're here for the first time in a long time, and it's a hell of an experience. There have been some big moments, we can be proud of the performances.
"The first goal rattled us -- it was a tough moment to take. It was so early, you feel the intensity of the environment -- they came out, blood boiling, you could feel their intensity. We were on the ropes in the first 20 minutes, but we came back, we adapted. We were bending, but we didn't break -- we pushed through."
Morocco coach Walid Regragui: "The first half was one of the best performances we've had in a long time. It was too bad we had that own goal as that shook us a little bit. I loved that second half as that was the spirit I was looking for and despite the pressure, the players were there. Look at Hakimi -- he played injured to the very last minute, all Moroccans should praise him every day. We are a country, we are together but yeah, we still have work to do.
"We need to duplicate how European teams play, with our own values. If we bring in our identity, we will win. I am happy with my players, my players trusted in me and my country -- and the players wanted to fight for the country.
"We set ourselves an objective -- we wanted to give everything to get out of the group stage. We're aiming for the sky -- we're not going to stop here, but we're going to be a difficult team to beat, so why not dream about winning the trophy? We need African teams to set this objective. We're taking it one game at a time, we're not getting carried away - but if we're fighting fit, we stand a great chance of progressing."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
Hakim Ziyech opened the scoring with his 19th international goal for Morocco, and his first at a World Cup finals. It was the ninth scored from outside the box in Qatar, while there were 22 scored across the whole group stage at Russia 2018.
Morocco's Nayef Aguerd scored the first own goal at the 2022 World Cup. By comparison, there were 12 in Russia four years ago, with none of those coming in the group stage.
Youssef En-Nesyri's two career World Cup goals tie three other players for the most in Morocco's history, though En-Nesyri is the first Moroccan player to score at two different World Cups.
Morocco join Ghana (2006, 2010), Senegal (2002, 2022) and Nigeria (1994, 1998, 2014) as the only African teams to reach the World Cup knockout phase more than once.
Morocco's haul of seven points in the group stage is the most ever for an African side at a World Cup. The previous record by a CAF side had been six.
Morocco and Senegal's advancement marks the second time that two African nations have reached the World Cup knockout phase in a single tournament, after Algeria and Nigeria advanced in 2014. Cameroon and Ghana could also still qualify for the round of 16.
Canada's record of six defeats from six matches as World Cup finals ties them with El Salvador for the worst record in tournament history. A third CONCACAF nation, Honduras, has played nine World Cup finals matches without winning, although they have drawn three of their matches.
Canada: Herdman's team are not scheduled to play next until almost four months from now, when they play their final two fixtures in Group C of the CONCACAF Nations League. They travel to Curacao for their match on March 25 before hosting Honduras three days later.
Morocco: The Atlas Lions will face the runners-up in Group E -- which comprises Spain, Japan, Costa Rica and Germany -- at Education City Stadium on Tuesday at 6 p.m. local time/10 a.m. ET.