Who: Spain vs Morocco
Where: Education City Stadium
When: December 6, 6pm (15:00 GMT)
Spain head into Tuesday’s last-16 clash against Morocco as favourites but the Atlas Lions will sense that they can pull off an upset after an electrifying start to their World Cup campaign.
The Spaniards, who humbled Costa Rica 7-0 in their opening game, eventually finished second in Group E behind Japan following a shock 2-1 loss to the Samurai Blue – a result that also sent four-time champions Germany tumbling out of the tournament.
Morocco, meanwhile, defied the odds to top Group F ahead of Croatia and Belgium and are now making their second-ever appearance in the knockout phase.
They are the only Arab team left standing in the competition and will enjoy significant support at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan.
Coach Walid Regragui’s approach so far has focused on defending deep and capitalising on opportunities to punish opponents on the counterattack.
Central to his side’s strategy is Hakim Ziyech, who returned to the national team when Regragui took over from Vahid Halilhodžić in August. An earlier dispute between Ziyech and Halilhodžić had led to the mercurial winger being axed from the side.
His creativity provides Morocco with its most potent attacking threat but it is their resolute defensive play that has attracted plaudits.
The goal they conceded to Canada during their 2-1 victory in their final Group F encounter was the first in Regragui’s six-game reign.
Morocco’s goalkeeper, Yassine Bounou, said the team had already “made history” by reaching the last 16 but said it wanted to achieve “more” yet.
“Spain will force us to be at our best,” Bounou told reporters on Sunday.
“[But] we are thoroughly prepared. We have got better and better with each passing game, and I’m sure we’ll be in good shape,” he added. “We want to make our people happy.”
Spain to stick to ‘football philosophy’
Spain, for their part, will need to produce a much-improved performance from the defeat to Japan in their last outing.
La Roja put on a masterclass in passing during the first 45 minutes of that game but made defensive blunders in the second half which saw coach Luis Enrique’s men concede twice in six minutes. They only avoided exiting the tournament altogether on account of a superior goal difference to Germany.
Midfielder turned-centre back Rodri said his side will not change their tiki-taka approach just because of the loss but had focused on learning from their errors.
“We have learnt from our mistakes, and we will try to avoid them, but we are not going to change our football style for those mistakes … it is not good to change our football philosophy. We will stick with that,” Rodri told reporters on Sunday.
He also promised not to take Morocco, ranked 15 places below the 2010 champions, lightly.
“[They are] one of the top teams in Africa. So, I think they are a very, very strong team,” Rodri said. “You can see the names they have there, the players they have with quality, with power. I think it’s going to be very, very tough.”
Tuesday’s fixture will mark the second time Spain and Morocco have played against one another at a World Cup.
Their previous meeting came in 2018, when the sides drew 2-2 during a group stage encounter.
The winner of this week’s clash will face either Portugal or Switzerland on December 10.