Atlas Lions roar past Canada into World Cup last 16

Morocco's midfielder #07 Hakim Ziyech (front) celebrates with teammates after he scored his team's first goal during their Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F match against Canada at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on December 1, 2022.

Photo credit: Natalia Kolesnikova | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Goals from Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri ensured the North Africans finished top of Group F ahead of 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia.
  • Morocco, who last reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in 1986, will face the runners-up from Group E in the last 16, with the identity of their opponents decided later Thursday.

In Doha, Qatar

For the first time since the World Cup kicked off on November 20, Doha woke up to cloudy skies with temperatures noticeable lower. Google indicated upper 20s in degrees Celsius, but it felt cooler after several days of high temperatures.

At Al Thumama Stadium, Morocco were sizzling hot, at least for most of the first half, as they hit Canada 2-1  in their final Group “F” match to storm the round of 16 as group leaders.

Croatia finished second to secure the other qualification spot in the group after drawing 0-0 with Belgium who got eliminated.

It was a beautifully written piece of history for Morocco, who made it out of the group for only the second time from six World Cup appearances.

Their first was in 1986 when they topped a trio of European giants namely, England, Portugal and Poland to write history as the first African country to make the knock-out stage.

Morocco also recorded their first back-to-back wins at the World Cup as they continued with their good record against Concacaf nations with a 12th win from 13 meetings.

“Today we make history,” said man-of-the-match Achraf Hakimi.

“We did not come just to play or to say we almost made it. We have to do what the big teams do. To win. We have to have that mentality,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui.

“Our first half was extraordinary, then we fought in the second half. I am happy with this victory,” he added.

They were drawn in a difficult looking group in Qatar that had the number two ranked team in the world, Belgium and 2018 World Cup losing finalists Croatia.

Morocco played superbly to hold Croatia to a barren draw before calmly dispatching the fancied Belgians 2-0 and then doing what they had to do on Thursday against Canada to secure the group leadership.

Morocco, backed by a packed partisan crowd at Al Thumama Stadium, started in frantic fashion, pinning down the Canadians who appeared to be in sixes and sevens early on.

A fourth minute blunder by Canada goalkeeper Milan Borjan gave Chelsea midfielder Hakim Ziyech the simplest of finishes from 40 metres out.

Seville forward Youssef el-Nesyri timed his run beautifully to collect a long ball from deep and slam it past Borjan on 23 minutes as Morocco threatened to run away with the game.

But out of nothing Canada halved their deficit through an own goal by Morocco defender Nayef Aguerd as he attempted to clear Sam Adekugbe's dangerous delivery into the box.

El-Nesyri’s opportunistic goal in the dying moments of the half was disallowed as one of the Moroccan players was judged to be offside by match referee Raphael Claus of Brazil.

Canada were more purposeful in the second half in a hostile Al Thumama venue where the jam-packed stands whistled ceaselessly whenever the North Africans had possession.

This was Canada’s sixth loss in as many World Cup matches.

“It has been a long time since we were here and we would have wanted to be here for longer,” said Canadian John Herdman.

Interestingly, both captains, Canada’s Atiba Hutchinson and Morocco’s Romain Saïss are team-mates at Turkish club Besiktas.

Morocco await Group E's (Spain, Japan, Costa Rica, Germany) second-placed team in the second round.