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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    World Cup roundup

    Morocco players celebrate by tossing the head coach Walid Regragui into the air at the end of the World Cup group F soccer match between Canada and Morocco at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha , Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

    Morocco 2, Canada 1

    Walid Regragui stood in the middle of a team huddle as his players reached out and patted him vigorously on the head. Then they threw their coach in the air, almost as if they had already won the World Cup.

    Regragui has been an international coach for only three months but still guided Morocco to the last 16 of the World Cup for only the second time in its history with a win over Canada on Thursday. It clinched first place in Group F for Morocco, ahead of 2018 finalist Croatia and semifinalist Belgium.

    Regragui's squad has now collected more victories at a single World Cup than any other Morocco team.

    No one thought that was likely when the Moroccan soccer federation took a gamble on the 47-year-old Regragui in August by giving him his first job in charge of a national team. The payoff has been historic.

    "About 50 or 60 years of Moroccan history. We've done it in a few weeks," Regragui said.

    Morocco's two wins in Qatar, a huge surprise over Kevin de Bruyne and No. 2-ranked Belgium and then the victory over Canada at Al Thumama Stadium, is as many as the country had won in all its previous World Cup appearances put together. Morocco also drew its opener against Croatia to advance unbeaten.

    "We trust in him," Morocco defender Achraf Hakimi said of Regragui. "He's done an amazing job with not much time."

    The Moroccans' only previous trip past the group stage at a World Cup had come in 1986, when they also won their group, but won only one match.

    Goals by Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri delivered the victory over Canada and ensured this team also went through.

    Nayef Aguerd's own-goal just before halftime made it 2-1 and lifted Canada enough for them to put pressure on Morocco in search of an equalizing goal for most of the second half.

    The Canadians came agonizingly close when a header from captain Atiba Hutchinson, who came on as a second-half substitute, bounced down off the crossbar and onto the goal-line.

    Replays showed part of the ball had crossed the line but not all of it.

    "Two inches. Two inches form getting our first result," Canada coach John Herdman said. "This isn't Canada walking away with our heads down. We can keep our heads up."

    But even when his team's total control suddenly disappeared, Regragui was happy with the fighting spirit.

    "I loved the second half because that's the spirit we were looking for," he said. "First half, extraordinary. Second half, we fought."

    Canada, which will co-host the next World Cup in 2026 with the United States and Mexico, had already been eliminated before facing Morocco and lost all three of its games in Qatar, matching its three defeats at its only other World Cup appearance in 1986.

    Herdman was certain his team had made progress over the course of their three games, and also praised their fight after a bad early error put them behind.

    Steven Vitoria's back pass put goalkeeper Milan Borjan under pressure. But instead of clearing downfield, Borjan inexplicably side-footed the ball gently in the direction of Ziyech, who chipped it over Borjan and into the unguarded goal in the fourth minute.

    Japan 2, Spain 1

    Same stadium. Same result. Similar shocking victory for Japan at the World Cup.

    After beating Germany in the team's opener, Japan worked its way into the round of 16 of the World Cup by defeating Spain — the same score as last week.

    Spain also advanced despite the loss, knocking Germany out of the tournament.

    Japan scored twice early in the second half to come from behind and defeat another European powerhouse and make it to the knockout stage for the second straight World Cup. It's the first time Japan has advanced past the group stage in back-to-back tournaments.

    "For Asia and for Japan, our victories over Spain and Germany, two of the top teams in the world, is something that give us great confidence and we are very pleased," Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said. "Of course, there are many things we still have to learn, but Asia can win in the world stage, Japan can win in the world stage."

    Ao Tanaka scored the winning goal from close range early in the second half. It took about two minutes for video review officials to confirm the ball hadn't gone out of bounds before the goal at Khalifa International Stadium, where Japan had shocked Germany in its opener.

    Players from both teams looked surprised when it was announced that the goal counted, and the Japanese started running toward their bench again to celebrate with their teammates.

    "From my angle I think the ball was clearly half out, but more than that I could not see because of the speed," Tanaka said. "I was concentrating in scoring. There was always a possibility that it was out ... But in the end it was a goal, so that was great."

    Japan finished at the top of Group E and will next face Croatia. Spain will take on Group F winner Morocco.

    Spain and Germany — which beat Costa Rica 4-2 in a simultaneous match — both had four points in the group. But Spain had a superior goal difference.

    The group standings bounced back and forth during both matches. Costa Rica was beating Germany at one point. If that result had stood, Costa Rica would have eliminated Spain.

    Spain coach Luis Enrique said he didn't know that at one point Costa Rica was winning.

    "If I had known about it, I could have had a heart attack," he said.

    Álvaro Morata scored for Spain in the 11th minute and the 2010 champions were in control until Japan rallied after halftime. Ritsu Doan equalized in the 48th with a left-footed shot from outside the box and Tanaka added the second three minutes later.

    Luis Enrique said Spain "got into collapse mode."

    "We totally lost control during those five minutes. We panicked," Luis Enrique said. "If they had to score more goals, they would have been able to do it. They got past us like an airplane."

    Morata became the first Spain player to score in the team's first three matches at the World Cup since Telmo Zarra in 1950.

    Spain had opened with a 7-0 rout of Costa Rica before conceding late in a 1-1 draw against Germany.

    Japan, which lost to Costa Rica in its second match, was eliminated by Belgium in the last 16 four years ago in Russia. The Japanese have never gotten past the round of 16 at the World Cup.

    By finishing second in the group, Spain may avoid facing Brazil in the quarterfinals and Argentina in the semifinals.

    "There is nothing to celebrate," Luis Enrique said. "I'm not happy. We wanted to finish in first place with a victory."

    The coach said he was surprised that the second goal by Japan was confirmed by VAR. He said he was shown a photo of the ball out of bounds.

    "That photo they showed me must have been altered," Luis Enrique said. "That's the only explanation."

    Germany 4, Costa Rica 2

    Back-to-back early exits at the World Cup have Germany coach Hansi Flick wanting to go back to basics.

    The four-time champions were again eliminated from the group stage, four years after their embarrassing display as defending champions in Russia.

    Something has to change, Flick said after a victory over Costa Rica that still wasn't enough to secure a spot in the round of 16.

    "I believe for the future of German football we need to do things differently in training," said Flick, who took over as coach after last year's European Championship. "For years we are talking about new goalkeepers and wingbacks, but Germany was always able to defend well. We need the basics.

    "For the future, for the next 10 years, it is very important to focus on the new generation of players."

    It was only eight years ago that Germany won its fourth World Cup title, beating an Argentina team led by Lionel Messi in his prime in the final at the Maracana Stadium. With that victory, Germany became the only European team to win a World Cup in either North or South America.

    In Qatar, it was an opening loss to Japan that set the stage for the disappointing finish this time. Germany was beaten 2-1 in that match last week, and followed it with a 1-1 draw against Spain.

    That gave the Germans a chance in its last match at Al Bayt Stadium, and for a few minutes during the simultaneous final group matches on Thursday, it was enough. At halftime, for example, Germany was beating Costa Rica and Japan was losing to Spain — results that would have put the Germans into the round of 16.

    It was Japan's 2-1 victory over the Spaniards that essentially cost the Germans a chance to play at least one more match in Qatar.

    Flick cited Spain as an example for his country to follow.

    "Spain is very good in defense," he said, even though the 2010 World Cup champions ultimately lost to Japan at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. "It focuses on training young players. They know the tactics well."

    It all started so well for Germany on Thursday with Serge Gnabry scoring a 10th-minute header and Spain taking an early lead against Japan.

    Both matches were turned upside down in the second half.

    Yeltsin Tejeda evened the score in the 58th minute and Juan Vargas scrambled another in the 70th, putting Costa Rica ahead 2-1 and all of a sudden on target to advance.

    "There were a lot of individual mistakes and these are things that make me very angry," Flick said.

    But Germany substitute Kai Havertz made it 2-2 in the 73rd minute and then restored Germany's lead in the 85th. Another substitute, Niclas Füllkrug, added the fourth.

    Costa Rica had lost its opening game against Spain 7-0. The team then put on a much better display and beat Japan 1-0.

    "We are not what we saw in our first game," Costa Rica coach Luis Fernando Suarez said. "We had to go back to what made us qualify for the World Cup."

    Croatia 0, Belgium 0

    The ball reached Romelu Lukaku right in front of goal with seconds remaining. Score, and he'd send Belgium into the round of 16 of the World Cup.

    Somehow, he missed.

    Belgium and its aging generation of players were eliminated from the tournament after a draw with Croatia, which advanced as the second-place team in Group F behind Morocco.

    Minutes after the game, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez announced he'd be leaving his role after more than six years — a decision he said he had reached before the World Cup started.

    His departure could easily have been delayed.

    Lukaku, Belgium's record scorer but only recently back from injury, came on as a halftime substitute and squandered several great chances, the best coming in stoppage time when Thorgan Hazard's cross fell to him at the back post, barely 2 meters (yards) out. The ball struck Lukaku's midriff and instead of rolling into the net, it bounced back across the front of the goal and was gathered by Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.

    Lukaku also hit the inside of the post with the goal virtually unguarded. Another chance, from a header in front of goal, sailed over the bar following a cross from Kevin De Bruyne that might have come from a ball that was out of play.

    Lukaku punched the side of the dugout as he walked off, knocking the plexiglass screen out of place. Moments earlier, he was sobbing in the arms of Belgium assistant coach Thierry Henry.

    "We could have won this game by three goals and we'd be walking away feeling very different," Martinez said.

    "I thought (Lukaku) moved very well, got in great situations, and what was missing was the finish. It was the difference between hitting the post and going in, and hitting the post and going out."

    Croatia, the 2018 runner-up led by Luka Modric, will attempt to make another deep run at the World Cup after also reaching the semifinals in 1998.

    The Croats will play the winner of Group E on Monday.

    "This is a team mix of experience and youth," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said, who added of Belgium: "We were lucky that they didn't take their chances."

    Belgium is facing the breakup of its talented but underachieving squad after failing to live up to its status as the second-ranked team and one of the tournament favorites. What has long been called Belgium's "Golden Generation" — now featuring six players with more than 100 appearances — is set to split with the World Cup semifinal appearance in 2018 as its peak.

    The team, which has faced reports of infighting and divisions between players during the tournament in Qatar, scored only one goal in three games and saved its best performance until its final match. It came too late.

    The fitness issues of Lukaku — injured for most of this season with thigh and hamstring problems — have proved to be a huge blow for the team. The Inter Milan striker missed the 1-0 win over Canada, came on as an 81st-minute substitute in the 2-0 loss to Morocco, and then played the second half against Croatia.

    Throughout the tournament, De Bruyne in particular has found himself in great positions around the area but with no one to feed.

    With Lukaku there, Belgium suddenly had a presence up front to concern Croatia's defense, even if he was visibly not fully fit. His lack of match sharpness proved costly when it came to his finishing.

    De Bruyne and Lukaku will be back for the European Championship in 2024 and probably the next World Cup in 2026. But the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Axel Witsel and Dries Mertens might have played their last major tournament.

    Maybe even Eden Hazard, who was dropped for the Croatia game and — at the age of 31 — has lost his old powers after so many injuries.

    Martinez, who is likely to resume his career as a club coach, said he had more regrets about the loss to Morocco than the draw with Croatia.

    "I think today we were ourselves again," he said.

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