“No chance” was Kevin De Bruyne’s blunt assessment when discussing Belgium’s likelihood of success at this World Cup in the build-up to it. After collapsing to a stunning defeat at the hands of Morocco here in Qatar, it’s hard to argue with the Manchester City midfielder’s so famously impeccable vision.
Manager Roberto Martinez described the opening display in the narrowest of wins over Canada as “technically the worst” of his six-year tenure but with even the faintest of faint glimpses of the quality this side used to light up Russia four years ago utterly absent for this second outing, you suspect he may now have a new low bar.
Captain Eden Hazard suggested in his pre-match press conference that the time may have come and gone for this golden group and, after a second deeply disappointing performance in succession here, that time may have vanished far sooner than even he expected.
Abdelhamid Sabiri is the name that will go down in Moroccan football folklore now, his brilliantly conceived and executed second-half free-kick deceiving Thibaut Courtois and sparking bedlam on the pitch and off it before fellow substitute Zakaria Aboukhlal in added time delivered the exclamation point in a deserved 2-0 win.
A draw against Canada in the final game and a first spot in the last 16 in more than 35 years will be theirs. For Belgium, a far tougher date with 2018 finalists Croatia awaits and a far bleaker outlook by far.
Given all they could handle by a buccaneering Canada in their opening game, Belgium welcomed an altogether calmer start to this one, helped in large part by a lack of adventure by the Atlas Lions. Content to allow Belgium’s ageing centre-back pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld to have the ball at the back, they instead focused their attentions on shutting down time and space for the clearer and more present dangers further forward.
They were given an early warning of what can come when this side does click into gear when Thorgan Hazard, one of three changes to the side that left so much to be desired last time out, found Michy Batshuayi in the inside channel before a shot was deflected behind. De Bruyne, from a neat set piece, saw his own powerful effort blocked before Andre Onana, another of Martinez’s selection tweaks, headed over from the resulting corner.
If the slapstick defending of four days ago was thankfully missing the lack of fluency disappointingly remained with the fluidity of De Bruyne and the elder Hazard’s interchanges failing to open up a disciplined Moroccan backline. Perhaps buoyed by the lack of threat presenting itself, and certainly by a boisterous and partisan support urging on their every touch, Morocco began to grow into the game as an attacking threat themselves as the half wore on. Selim Amallah and Ziyech saw attempted efforts balloon high and wide before Achraf Hakimi blazed the best opening of all wide of the near post when set free, a calmer more considered finish the far better option not taken.
In Ziyech and Hakimi, Morocco boast two truly world-class players and it was through the former they thought they’d taken the lead as the first half ticked into stoppage time. A whipped free-kick from out on the right curled over and past everyone, including Courtois, into the Belgian net. As the Moroccans swarmed to their talisman, referee Cesar Ramos of Mexico was called to the monitor only to see a clearly interfering Romain Saiss beyond the last man as the ball left Ziyech’s left boot.
Hazard, hitherto a passenger, stung the hands of goalkeeper Munir El Kajoui with a fierce shot to open the second period before Sofiane Boufal at the other end went closer still with a curled attempt narrowly past Courtois’ far post. With Morocco sensing what was about to come their low block loosened, a risk they felt emboldened to take by Belgium’s continued no-show, and with it the tiniest of pockets that until now had been closed started to open.
Belgian substitute Dries Mertens exploited a chance shortly after his introduction with a sharp shot from range. But it was Morocco who found the only space that mattered, Sabiri squeezing a perfect set-piece from an impossible angle wide on the left in between goalkeeper and near post, glancing off skipper Saiss and into the net. Scenes, sparked. Roof, off. Belgium, in bits.
Romelu Lukaku, the Inter Milan striker deemed not fit enough to play his part up to now, was thrown on, the last desperate roll of the dice from Martinez, but it was Morocco, who fittingly and definitively, ended it in stoppage time. The electric Ziyech broke free down the right, put Timothy Castagne in a blender, before cutting back for Aboukhlal to rifle home past Courtois and seal one of the results of this or any tournament.
This Belgian side were No 1 in Fifa’s rankings for nearly three and a half years, but the one that has arrived here look a sad and pale imitation, the brilliance and burst of the likes of Hazard that it was built on now irredeemably dimmed. As the sands of time pass on this once great team, its stay here in this tournament in the desert may not be long at all. For Morocco, their journey may only just be beginning.