The 2022 World Cup has gotten off to a cracking start. The goals are great, the results are unpredictable and the matches have been fun. With so much happening every day, ESPN India attempts to pick out the one magical moment that defined the day's action.
For day 8, we pick Zakaria Aboukhlal's goal that gave Morocco a 2-0 win over Belgium - just their third win in FIFA World Cup history.
The clock read 91 minutes, 39 seconds. The score, Belgium 0 - 1 Morocco. Goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi took a long run-up and smashed a goal kick forward.
Few had seen this scoreline coming, fewer still the performance. Morocco had dominated Belgium all match - not that you could tell by the stats (Belgium had 56% possession, 671 passes vs 317, 9 corners vs 1), but this is one of those where the stats barely told the story.
Where Morocco had been intelligent, incisive and full of running, Belgium looked like they had got their feet stuck in personal squares of treacle. Into added time after ninety, and a 1-0 lead hadn't seemed enough.
Abderrazak Hamdallah outmuscled Toby Alderweireld and flicked it on to Zakaria Aboukhlal. He in turn looked to flick it forward but it hit Alex Witsel, but the rebound was seized by Hakim Ziyech.
A few months back, Hamdallah would have been nowhere near the team. Ziyech wouldn't have been there either. Hamdallah had quit the team over a row over who would take a penalty in 2019. Meanwhile Ziyech had gotten into a power struggle with the previous manager, Vahid Halilhodzic, and hadn't played for the team since June 2021. Earlier this year, he had announced his international retirement - essentially giving Morocco a choice: with the World Cup around the corner, choose him or Halilhodzic. The manager had had an excellent record (20 wins and 7 draws in 30), but they chose Ziyech.
Former Moroccan player Walid Regragui was made head coach late in September 2022, and the old guns were coaxed back. Five matches in (including this vs Belgium), Regragui is yet to lose a match, yet to concede a goal.
Ziyech dribbled past Witsel and then Timothy Castagne, dragging them wide, before pulling it back sharply. Straight into Aboukhlal's feet.
Ziyech's stint with Chelsea has been, politely put, disappointing; while his feud had seen him miss all the qualifiers for this World Cup. But in Qatar, Ziyech has turned it on. On Sunday, he was the best player on the pitch (illustrious company on the other side included), his magical left foot tying Belgium in knots. .
He had a wicked freekick ruled out, for offside by one of his teammates, but he hadn't stopped trying. Even after substitute Abdelhamid Sabiri had curled in a similar freekick off the opposite flank that flicked off captain Romain Saiss to give Morocco the lead and force Belgium to attack more, it had been Ziyech doing all the string-pulling.
Aboukhlal connected first-time, smashing it past Thibaut Courtois and into the roof of the net. Near post, but unsaveable.
Zakaria Aboukhlal is a rising star in Moroccan football. The 22-year-old Toulouse forward had represented the Netherlands at youth levels but had been given his senior Moroccan debut in 2020 by Halilhodzic. He made the finish look easy - but the skill required to connect with it first time and keep it down at the same time is pretty underrated. Before this, he'd scored just twice for the national team; his third was to be one of the biggest in his nation's history.
Ziyech fell onto his knees, pumping his fists, just outside the box and was immediately engulfed by four players. Aboukhlal ran past the corner flag where he was mobbed by everyone else. The heavily partisan Al Thumama stadium blew its collective top.
Now, you'd call it a shock when a world No. 22 beats a world No. 2 in any sport, but if you'd seen the match without any of that context you'd have shrugged and said, 'hey this wasn't some 1-0 smash-and-grab'.
In that sense the second goal captured the essence of the game perfectly. Aboukhlal's finish was clinical, emphatic and skillful - just as his team's performance had been. It put the seal on an entirely deserved triumph.
Look at what it means for Morocco ❤️ #FIFAWorldCup | #Qatar2022 pic.twitter.com/9lYg4e5ktu
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) November 27, 2022
In second place on the table now, a match against a down-and-out Canada awaits for Morocco on Thursday, history within touching distance.