Belgium slides to be surprised by the defeat of Morocco
DOHA: Morocco put Belgium’s World Cup hopes in jeopardy after goals from Abdelhamid Sabri and Zakaria Aboukhalal sealed a shock 2-0 victory in Doha on Sunday.
Belgium, who finished third in Russia four years ago, could have qualified for the last 16 with a win, but instead put up a patchy showing after their blissful opening victory over Canada.
Substitute Sabri was the hero thanks to a free kick in the 73rd minute, Thibaut Courtois allowing it to be fired into his near position before Abu Khalal scored the second goal in stoppage time.
Tens of thousands of Morocco fans responded by cheering on their team at the bustling El Thumama Stadium.
Morocco replace Belgium at the top of Group F and know they will qualify for the knockout stage for the first time since 1986 if they can avoid defeat by Canada on Thursday.
Belgium, second in the world, will have to beat 2018 runner-up Croatia to make sure they qualify.
Roberto Martinez’s aging side have reached at least the quarter-finals in each of the past four Grand Slams.
Belgium, whose captain Eden Hazard admits they are not as good as they were in 2018, lack the spark and have been pushed back by inspiring opposition.
Morocco suffered a heavy blow after the national anthem when goalkeeper Yacine Bounou appeared to indicate that he would not be able to play.
The veteran Mounir al-Kajwi was sent in his place.
The Atlas Lions fans outnumbered their Belgian counterparts and breathed a sigh of relief when the Europeans nearly took the lead in the fourth minute.
Hazard played in Michy Batshuayi whose effort was saved from a tight angle by Munir.
Belgium dominated the early exchanges but Morocco pulled a shot on goal when Hakim Ziyech fired in from long range.
The African side continued to grow in the competition and Belgium-born Selim Amelallah fired into the stands before Achraf Hakimi volleyed a stunning cross wide.
The crowd erupted into wild celebration when Ziyech’s free-kick hit the net in first-half injury time.
But the goal was disallowed after examining the video assistant referee, because Roman Sayes tended to offside and the former Wolverhampton defender was in the sight of “keeper Courtois”.
Both teams started the second half brightly, with Ziyech shooting straight at Courtois and Hazard saving a save from Munir at his near post.
Sofiane Boufal almost broke the deadlock in the 57th minute with a quick kick, but he fired the ball wide of the post.
Martinez made two changes after the hour mark, replacing an ineffective Hazard with Dries Mertens and Youri Tielemans in place of Amadou Onana in central midfield.
Mertens almost made an immediate impact when Munir hit his jab from just outside the area.
The deadlock was finally broken with 17 minutes left as Sabri curled in a free kick from near the touchline, much like Ziyech’s disallowed goal, deflecting it off Courtois.
Martínez threw the ball over to Romelu Lukaku, who was expected to miss the game with an injury, in a desperate attempt to get back into the game.
But Belgium ran out of ideas long ago and it was Morocco who scored the second goal of the match.