Morocco v Spain
Morocco comes fresh off a historic group-stage result, finishing top of a group consisting of previous runner-ups Croatia and semi-finalists Belgium, without conceding a goal from an opposing player. The Atlas Lions head to the round of 16 as one of two African teams, alongside Senegal.
This is only the second time that Morocco progress from the first round of a World Cup, 36 years after the legendary 1986 squad. Now riding the wave of an eight-game unbeaten run in all competitions, Walid Regragui’s men are out to become the first Morocco side to reach the quarter-finals and only the fourth from Africa, following in the footsteps of Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana. They have been one of the most impressive sides of the competition so far, especially off the ball, where they rarely are found out of position, limiting their opponents to half-chances only.
Luis Enrique’s side surrendered top spot in Group E with defeat against Japan in the final group match, a result which left the coach “apocalyptic” in the dressing room after the final whistle. “We’re totally recovered, it was the wake-up call we needed,” Manchester City’s Rodri explained before the first of the country’s knock-out ties.
The most recent meeting between the two nations came in the 2018 World Cup as Iago Aspas emerged as Spain’s hero with an injury-time equaliser to make it 2-2 and deny the African side what would have been their first ever win over their European neighbours. Only three of the Spanish team may remain in their XI for this rematch.
The winner of this tie will take on Portugal or Switzerland in a potential quarter-final, meaning either side could be confident of even reaching the final four with a win in this meeting.
Ranking seventh for shots per 90 minutes at this World Cup, Álvaro Morata has scored in all three of his appearances in the tournament so far while averaging a shot on target every 28 minutes.
The Spanish number nine made his first start of the campaign against Japan and is expected to retain his place having recorded three shots, all on target, in his hour on the pitch in that 2-1 defeat.
With an 83.3% accuracy on his attempts on goal at the World Cup, it improves on an already impressive average of 1.26 shots on target per 90 for club and country in 2022/23.
Morocco have conceded 0.13 xG per shot against so far in this tournament, the highest of any side remaining, suggesting that while they don’t concede rafts of efforts on goal, they are high-quality chances. It will only take one to fall to a confident Morata for this one to come off.
One player who is averaging even more fouls than Jordi Alba this World Cup is Gavi, with his 1.60 fouls. Amazingly, the aggressive teenager hasn’t been booked yet this tournament, even though there were several challenges where he very well could have been.
That could change in this match, though, as Gavi experiences the extra intensity of international knockout football for the first time. The match is being refereed by the Argentine Fernando Rapallini and he is averaging the second-most yellow cards per game so far, dishing out six bookings per 90 minutes.
Most of them did come in the fiery Serbia vs Switzerland game, but Morocco vs Spain is a rivalry too and Gavi is exactly the type of player who could get caught up in the moment and earn a place in the referee’s book.
Returning to the national team from his previously announced retirement, Ziyech has had a lot to prove in this World Cup – and boy has he proved himself. He has been running tirelessly in all group-stage matches and does an incredible job helping Hakimi out defensively. But it has also showed us another tendency of Ziyech, which is that he makes quite a lot of fouls.
He is not a player who accumulate a lot of yellow cards, but he has a habit of making easy fouls when battling for the ball on the wing. This can be a 50-50 challenge where he sticks out a foot, it can be an unnecessary push in the back from a throw-in or just pulling the full-back’s shirt.
Ziyech has so far averaged 2.3 fouls in Qatar and in a match with so much at stake, against a team with a lot of possession, we think that average score will only increase.
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