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Canada exits World Cup on third straight loss as Morocco profits from poor defending

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Canada midfielder Jonathan Osorio (21) and Morocco midfielder Sofiane Boufal (17) battle for the ball during second half group F World Cup soccer action at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar on Thursday, December 1, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

DOHA, Qatar — Another incomplete performance for Canada at the World Cup. But also a rousing late surge that fell just short in a 2-1 loss to a talented Moroccan side.

As in the two previous defeats at the tournament, there were some moments to savour and some to forget. The Canadian men go home wiser and with some more fans, if not wins, after a 36-year absence from the soccer showcase.

“It’s been the first time in a long time of being here," Canada coach John Herdman said. "We’d like to have been here longer, that’s for sure. But we’ve enjoyed the ride.”

There were bumps along the way Thursday in a raucous and loud Al Thumama Stadium. And the Canadians will be disappointed in the way they fell behind.

Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri scored for No. 22 Morocco, which took advantage of horrendous Canadian defending to lead 2-0 after 23 minutes. Canada got an Nayef Aguerd own goal to cut the margin to 2-1 at the break.

The 41st-ranked Canadians gave the ball away at will and were second-best to the pacey, opportunistic Atlas Lions, whose counter-attack had Canada wobbling in the first half.

Herdman switched pitchside from no jacket to Canada tracksuit top to suit jacket as he tried to find a winning combination on and off the field. But there was little flow to the Canadian attack until he began making substitutions at the hour mark.

That sparked a spell of Canada pressure with Morocco barely holding on. The Canadians came oh so close in the 71st minute when substitute Atiba Hutchinson's header off a corner hit the crossbar and bounced untouched to the ground but did not quite get all the way over the goal-line.

Hutchinson, in his 101st appearance for Canada, held his head in disbelief as Moroccan fans behind the goal exhaled.

Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, born in Montreal but raised in Morocco, almost lost the handle on the ball in the 87th minute but held on to prevent disaster and the Atlas Lions survived four minutes of stoppage time — with Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan coming up for a corner as fans roared their sides on.

The Canadians finish the tournament with zero points, having previously lost 1-0 to No. 2 Belgium and 4-1 to No. 12 Croatia.

And while the Canadians earned kudos for their showing against Belgium and Alphonso Davies scored Canada's first-ever goal at the men's tournament in the Croatia game, Canada has now lost its first six World Cup matches — the third team in the history of the tournament to do so after Mexico (which lost its first nine outings) and El Salvador (six).

Canada also went 0-3-0 in 1986 in Mexico, losing 1-0 to France and 2-0 to both Hungary and the Soviet Union.

For the Canadian men, the runway now begins to a home World Cup with Canada, Mexico and the U.S. co-hosting an expanded 48-team tournament in 2026.

The Moroccans still have some football to play here, flooding the field at the final whistle, having secured their place at the top of Group F and a berth in the round of 16.

Croatia also moved on after a 0-0 draw with Belgium in the other Group F match, which kicked off simultaneously 25 kilometres to the northwest at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan.

Morocco (2-0-1, seven points) won the group, two points ahead of Croatia (1-0-2). Coach Roberto Martinez announced he was stepping down after Belgium (1-1-1, four points) finished third and failed to advance.

For the first time at the tournament, the loud and proud Canadian fans met their match in the Moroccan supporters.

Fans from both countries turned up the volume from the get-go, making for a pulsating atmosphere. Attendance was announced at 43,102.

The stylish venue, which opened in October 2021, is designed to replicate the 'gahfiya’, a traditional woven cap worn by men and boys across the Middle East and Arab world.

Morocco started with a 16-pass sequence from the kickoff, resulting in a cross through the Canadian penalty box. It got worse for Canada after that.

After scoring 68 seconds into the game against Croatia last time out, it was Canada that had the disastrous start this time after defender Steven Vitoria mis-hit an attempted backpass in the fourth minute.

Borjan came out of his penalty box with En-Nesyri steaming towards him. But instead of booting the ball to safety, Borjan seemed caught in two minds on whether to pass or clear. Instead the ball squirted forward straight to Ziyech, who looped it into the goal from distance as Borjan desperately tried to race back to his goal-line.

Borjan put his hands on his hips and turned away in disgust as FIFA president Gianni Infantino offered a bemused smile from his box.

"I think that first goal rattled us," said Herdman. "Just a tough moment to take so early. You feel the intensity of the environment. They came out blood boiling. You really did feel their intensity."

En-Nesyri doubled the lead in the 23rd minute after a long ball from Paris Saint-Germain star fullback Achraf Hakimi split the Canadian defence. The Sevilla forward outpaced Vitoria and Kamal Miller, controlling the ball with his left foot and beat a diving Borjan under the arm with a low shot from his right.

“We battled for a period," Herdman said. "I think we were on the ropes for periods in the first 20-odd minutes but we came back, we adapted. I think we showed that resilience to get through that tough moment. And we were bending but we didn’t break. We pushed through."

Sam Adekugbe threw Canada a lifeline in the 40th minute, beating a defender down the left flank and putting a ball in on goal that deflected off Aguerd's outstretched foot past Bounou.

Morocco tied Croatia 0-0 before upsetting Belgium 2-0 and went into Thursday's game knowing a win or a draw would allow to to advance.

Herdman made four changes to his starting 11, revamping his midfield in the process with Adekugbe, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Jonathan Osorio and Junior Hoilett coming in for Hutchinson, Stephen Eustaquio, Richie Laryea and Jonathan David. 

Eustaquio (hamstring) was an injury concern before the match. Borjan captained Canada in Hutchinson's absence.

Herdman sent on Hutchinson, David and Ismael Kone in the 60th minute in a bid to spark the comeback. Laryea followed five minutes later with David Wotherspoon entering the game in the 76th.

Morocco had seven attempts on goal to Canada's five, and put two shots on target, scoring on both, compared to none for the Canadians, who had six corners to Morocco's two.

Morocco improved to 4-9-6 all-time at the World Cup, moving into the knockout round for the second time.

Canada was looking for its first win over the Atlas Lions, having lost twice and drawn once in previous meetings. Morocco won 4-0 the last time they met, in October 2016 in Marrakech.

The Canadians have won just one of their last seven outings against African teams (1-4-2).

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press