Football News

Sofyan Amrabat stars as Morocco eliminate Spain from the World Cup on penalties (and Spurs nearly signed him)

By Ben Green

Published: 18:06, 6 December 2022

Morocco have reached the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history after eliminating Spain on penalties.

It was a gruelling 120 minutes of action at the Education City Stadium in which Spain dominated possession, but Morocco channeled their inner Japan to not let that deter them, keeping the Spanish attack at bay before settling the score on penalties.

In truth, Walid Regragui’s side had the cleaner opportunities but their shooting boots eluded them in the Spanish box. It mattered little, as The Atlas Lions kept firm at the back and kept their nerve in sudden death, with Bono producing a famous display between the sticks.

The result means Morocco are the fourth African side to reach the quarter-finals, and they certainly look good value for their progression. Regragui — who was only appointed in August — has overseen a sensational campaign in which his side topped their group and have now claimed an almighty scalp.

Pre-tournament, all eyes were on Hakim Ziyech, Youssef En-Nesyri and attack-heavy wing-backs Achraf Hakimi Noussair Mazraoui, but their success has been built upon a foundation of defensive solidity and midfield guts, keeping clean sheets against Spain, Belgium and Croatia.

Sofyan Amrabat is the emblematic star of that defensive solidity. The Fiorentina enforcer has covered every blade of grass in Qatar and provided a Rolls-Royce of an engine, challenging every ball with froth-mouthed zeal and putting in the hard yards at an inexorable rate. Against Spain, he was everywhere.

It may explain why Antonio Conte and Tottenham wanted him back in January last season. The Fiorentina man is an archetypal Conte midfielder and would have added bundles of energy to the middle of the park. Links were strong, but the club ultimately settled on Rodrigo Bentancur instead — not that his acquisition has turned out to be bad.

“I am really incredibly proud of Sofyan,” Amrabat’s brother, Nordin — formerly of Watford — told De Telegraaf. “When you play so well on such a stage – in three matches against countries like Croatia, Belgium and Canada – you have a lot going for you.

“I think the top clubs in Europe who have been sleeping have now woken up. In January, Sofyan himself was already in talks with Tottenham Hotspur, but there was no agreement on the transfer fee with Fiorentina. I think the interested parties will now line up.”

Gavi’s moment of history

Gavi’s rise to prominence has once again shone a torch on the majesty of Barcelona’s pre-eminent academy; and has given a nation still looking for the next ‘Golden Generation’ following their success in the late noughties and early 2010s plenty of hope for the future.

The prospect of Pedri and Gavi linking up for the next decade-and-a-half is a tantalising prospect for La Roja — and a frightening one for everyone else. The duo have formed a near-telepathic understanding of one another in Catalonia, and that is evident at international level as well.

Elder statesman Sergio Busquets provides a fatherly reference point for the duo in Spain’s midfield trident, allowing them to creatively dictate while he carries out the untidy business of protecting the backline and recycling possession. He is the silent workhorse.

Of course, tonight wasn’t Gavi’s night as he was brought off by Luis Enrique on the hour mark for Carlos Soler, but the milestone he achieved in the match is indicative of the trajectory he is heading in. Tonight, the teenage talent became the youngest player to start a World Cup match in the knockouts since Pele in the 1958 Final.

It’s quite a remarkable achievement, and also underlines the Spanish philosophy of ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’. That mantra has served La Masia well for years, and the Spanish national team continues to reap the rewards of the world-class talent spotters in Catalonia.

They are out, but the future is bright.