Morocco has become the latest side to pull off an incredible World Cup upset, defeating world number two ranked Belgium 2-0, hours after Costa Rica shocked Japan.
Abdelhamid Sabiri scored from an audaciously tight angle and fellow substitute Zakaria Aboukhlal added a second in stoppage time as Morocco stunned their Group F rivals.
Sabiri’s free kick from near the corner flag caught out Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois at the near post as it curled in for the 73rd-minute winner, securing only Morocco’s third victory at the World Cup finals and left the usually reliable Belgian keeper blushing at his error.
Aboukhlal’s goal came on the counter-attack, set up by Hakim Ziyech as Belgium were caught pressing forward for the equaliser.
It was Morocco’s first win at a World Cup since they beat Scotland in 1998.
“We played against one of the best teams in the world with big players, but we know that if you don’s give 100 per cent, it is impossible to win. With these players and these fans, anything is possible,” said Morocco coach Walid Regregui.
Belgium, who had scraped a 1-0 win over Canada in their opening game, again looked a pale shadow of the team who finished third in 2018.
They must now battle for a last-16 spot against Croatia.
“It’s a difficult result,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said.
“We couldn’t get our game going. It’s a game we need to understand; we need to be together and react. That’s what happens at the World Cup.”
The Red Devils’ poor display even forced Martinez to send Romelu Lukaku on for the last 10 minutes in a desperate attempt to salvage a point, even though the burly striker had been struggling with a hamstring problem.
In a lively start, Morocco looked happy to sit and wait amid the deafening whistles of their fans, although bouts of intense pressing led to a couple of dangerous counter-attacks with Ziyech the main threat.
As Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne struggled to find his range and Eden Hazard remained largely ineffective, Morocco looked safe.
Courtois was beaten for the first time in the tournament when Ziyech fired a free kick into the pack and it bounced past the keeper at the near post on the stroke of half-time.
Saiss, however, was marginally offside and referee Carlos Ramos ruled the goal out after a VAR review as the Besiktas defender was obstructing Courtois’s view.
It was eerily similar to the later free-kick that would beat Courtois and begin Belgium’s demise.
Saiss was also in the way, but onside this time, and he was later credited with getting a touch to score the goal.
Morocco defended tooth and nail until they found another opening two minutes into stoppage time, with Aboukhlal clipping Ziyech’s cross into the roof of the net as the stadium boiled over.
Some players kneeled down and put their heads to the ground in prayer with a sea of Morocco flags in the background, while others were waving Saudi and Palestinian flags in a show of pan-Arab support.
Morocco moved on to four points from two games with Belgium on three
Costa Rica don’t throw away their shot
Costa Rica put a huge dent in Japan’s hopes of reaching the World Cup last 16 as they recovered from their seven-goal hammering by Spain to claim a surprise 1-0 victory in Group E on Sunday.
Keysher Fuller’s 81st-minute effort, Costa Rica’s first shot on target in the entire tournament so far, stunned the Japanese fans in the stadium and left the group wide open.
Japan’s historic victory over Germany in their opener coupled with Costa Rica’s 7-0 drubbing by Spain cleared the way for Japan to reach the last 16 with a game to spare.
But a much-changed line-up failed to spark and their hopes of reaching the knockout stage for a fourth time are now left hanging in the balance with their final game against Spain.
Costa Rica, written off before kick-off, are now level on three points with Japan and have a chance to reach the last 16.
Heavyweights Spain and Germany play later.
A first-half of mind-numbing tedium even tested the patience of the drum-banging Japanese fans massed in their blue shirts at one end of the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
Apart from a two-minute burst at the start of the game by Japan, the rest of the opening half was played at snail’s pace.
For Costa Rica the lack of goalmouth action was probably most welcome seeing as they conceded three times in the opening half an hour against Spain.
Both goalkeepers were redundant and the only incidents that could pass as goalmouth action was a cross by Japan’s Ritsu Doan that flashed across the goal and a scooped shot high over the crossbar by Costa Rica forward Joel Campbell.
Japan’s coach Hajime Moriyasu took off defender Yuto Nagatomo at halftime and replaced him with attacker Takuma Asano who was surprisingly left on the bench despite scoring the winner against Germany.
Immediately after the break Japan looked more threatening with Hidemasa Morita finally testing Keylor Navas with a stinging drive the Costa Rica keeper turned away.
Kicking towards their fans, Japan began to seize control and Moriyasu made another attacking change with midfielder Kaoru Mitoma coming on for right back Miki Yamane.
Japan were camped in Costa Rica’s half but and it seemed only a matter of time before their pressure would pay off but in a rare break, Japan failed to clear and Fuller curled a shot which keeper Shuichi Gonda could not keep out.