Spain had to be patient and resilient against a dogged Iran side last time out, while the Atlas Lions prowled the pitch against Portugal desperately looking for an equaliser in their second outing, and can count themselves tremendously unlucky to have lost both games.
They’re heading home early while Spain look to the knockout rounds. Ahead of what should be a great game, we look at three key players for each side.
SERGIO RAMOS V MEHDI BENATIA
Sergio Ramos’ haters – and there are a few of them we’re led to believe – might go into meltdown at the news the tigerish defensive totem is set to surpass another milestone.
In addition to winning a 155th cap for his country against Morocco, the Real Madrid man will be appearing in his 16th match at a World Cup – going beyond the mark set by former Barcelona midfielder Xavi.
He will now be level with iconic former goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta who played at four consecutive World Cups between 1986-98 and is just one game away from joining another custodian, Iker Casillas, who has the all-time record with 17, which included lifting the trophy as Spain won in South Africa eight years ago.
The bite and bark of the La Roja captain will, as ever, be pivotal, especially when dealing with such a ferociously exciting attacking team in the Atlas Lions.
At the other end of the pitch he’ll come up against the Atlas Lions’ top dog in defence, Juventus centre-back Medhi Benatia, although he is in the doghouse after a shambolic job of trying to shackle Cristiano Ronaldo in the Portugal defeat. He also skied two glorious chances to level at the opposite end.
He will no doubt keep his place, but who plays alongside him is anyone’s guess. Wolves centre-back Romain Saiss could be let off his leash after he missed the Portugal defeat.
He was replaced by Manuel da Costa after a poor outing in the late 1-0 loss to Iran, but the Istanbul Basaksehir defender endured a nightmare afternoon as he struggled to cope with the nimble movement of Portugal’s attackers, and Ronaldo.
With a woeful pass accuracy of 74.5 per cent, Saiss (87.1) should be brought back in.
SERGIO BUSQUETS V MBARK BOUSSOUFA
For all the glittering talent Fernando Hierro has at his disposal, it is the bedrock of brawn and brilliance Sergio Busquets offers that lays the foundations for La Roja’s resplendent football.
Calm and composed in possession, the Barcelona man is a picture of serenity in both attack and defence, equally adept at tracking and tackling opponents as he is initiating play further forward.
He even gets in on the act in attack too, a brilliant header setting up Diego Costa for his second strike in the 3-3 draw with Spain.
He was left to solely patrol the area in front of defence in an attritional conflict with Iran, but expect him to click into gear offensively against a much more fluid Morocco.
No outfield player who has featured in both games has registered a better pass accuracy (94.6 per cent).
A player of exact importance who also goes under the radar for Morocco is Mbark Boussoufa, who left such a lasting impression on Al Jazira fans during two years with the Abu Dhabi giants.
He will cover one of the two anchorman positions in the Atlas Lions’ 4-2-3-1 formation, but he will roam about with intent – having played three key passes in their two games so far (as many as Busquets).
Built in the mould of Spanish legends Xavi and Andres Iniesta, he will dart about and try to open up holes in La Roja’s defence.
DAVID SILVA V NORDIN AMRABAT
Hierro might be expected to tweak his starting XI for this match, and rest the legs of his older players like David Silva and Iniesta. But in studying his squad, he will be loathe to leave out the dynamic Manchester City lock-picker who’s had a massive impact in this World Cup thus far.
He’s played more key passes than any compatriot (five) and has carried on the brilliant club form that finally earned him a belated second appearance in the Premier League team of the season.
He’s not just creator-in-chief of course, as supported by his nine goals for Pep Guardiola’s side in 2017/18, while he also netted five in qualifying for Spain.
Of all the attacking talent the Atlas Lions can pride themselves on, Watford wideman Nordin Amrabat perhaps isn’t the name that immediately springs to mind.
But having struggled to buzz for the Hornets last season, he spent the campaign on loan at La Liga’s Leganes, where three goals in 35 appearances helped them stave off relegation for a second successive season.
Expected to miss the second group game following a concussion against Iran in their opener, he not only made the starting line-up but put in a sublime performance, regularly leaving Portugal left-back Raphael Guerreiro in his wake as the Lions kept Portugal in a vice-like grip.
Dele Alli’s loss was Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s gain as the Chelsea-owned midfielder took advantage of an injury to assume a place in England’s starting line-up.
Many fans had been clamouring for Loftus-Cheek, who spent an injury-hit but promising season on loan at Crystal Palace in 2017/18, ever since his man-of-the-match display in a friendly draw with Germany in November.
Was this a worthy encore? Here we analyse Loftus-Cheek’s performance.
Goals – 0
Assists – 1
Shots – 1
Touches – 47
Passes – 33
Pass success – 87.9%
Interceptions – 2
This was nominally a like-for-like switch for Alli alongside Jesse Lingard in midfield and just behind Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in England’s 3-1-4-2 formation.
Head coach Gareth Southgate, however, had quite clearly told Loftus-Cheek to operate close to Kieran Trippier on the right, which helped stretch out a packed five-men defence and give Lingard and Sterling space to wreak havoc centrally.
The 22-year-old cut in on occasion and his left-footed shot early in the second half led to the bizarre deflection that saw Kane celebrate his hat-trick.
Discipline – Loftus-Cheek was by no means the focal point of this performance but he manfully stuck to his task on the right-hand side, where he has played for Palace on occasion, and kept the pressure on the overawed Central Americans.
His presence took the attention off wing-back Trippier to his outside and the trickier duo of Sterling and Lingard. While it would have been nice to see him float inside more often, it made sense to attack a physical but cumbersome Panama’s weaknesses through the centre.
Protecting the ball – Loftus-Cheek shrugged off defenders with sheer strength a couple of times and set up an early chance, but he also ran out of room with a series of naïve dribbles.
He is a graceful runner, rather than nippy and agile with the ball at his feet. That doesn’t necessarily translate when a a team has packed a sea of men deep in their own territory.
This was Loftus-Cheek’s big chance to turf out Alli from the full-strength starting line-up, or at least have his name louder in the conversation.
It’s unfair to say that he failed the audition, but at international level his skill-set seems suited to operating from the centre with his languid style and playmaking abilities. He’s at his best when his eyes are up and team-mates are ahead of him rather than horizontal.
RATING – 6/10
Harry Kane scored a hat-trick for the Three Lions, who roared to a second win in Russia.
There was some joy among the misery for the Central Americans as veteran skipper Felipe Baloy superbly converted Ricardo Avila’s free-kick to bring the fans in the stands to their feet for a moment they’ll treasure – if not the result.
Here we rate the Panama players.
Jaime Penedo – 7:
Was always going to be the busiest man on the pitch. Couldn’t be faulted for any goals. Rushed out well to thwart Sterling.
Michael Murillo – 4:
Hopelessly all at sea for England’s opener as he allowed Stones to wonder free. Overeager every time in the tackle.
Roman Torres – 4:
Struggled horribly with the pace and incision of Sterling and Lingard. Wasted a glorious chance to emulate his qualifying goalscoring heroics.
Fidel Escobar – 3:
What was he doing pole-axing Lingard in the box? Idiotic. Unsurprisingly booked as he looked way below the required pedigree.
Eric Davis – 6:
As Panama’s defence imploded, he remained diligent. Linked well with Rodriguez in attacking down the left channel.
Gabriel Gomez – 5:
Simply could not get to grips with Harry Maguire at corners. Completely overrun as he tried to screen his defence.
Edgar Barcenas – 6:
Linked the play well in attack as Panama showed more in attack that predicted. Industrious and bright. Two key passes.
Armando Cooper – 3:
His crude hack on Lingard was shocking and senseless. Dispossessed a team leading four times. Woefully lacking in quality.
Anibal Godoy – 3:
Dreadful touch when presented with early chance. No wonder he has two goals in 91 caps. Wrestled Kane to the ground for second penalty.
Jose Luis Rodriguez – 7:
One of the few Panama players to emerge with any credit. Let his football rather than fouling do the talking.
Blas Perez – 6:
Tried in vain to affect the game at the top end of the pitch. Tireless outing, but toiled against top-class opposition.
Ricardo Avila – 7:
Whipped in a superb cross that was finished emphatically by fellow substitute Baloy.
Abdiel Arroyo – 6:
Was neat and tidy when he came on, making one tackle and a key pass.
Felipe Baloy – 7:
The 37-year-old captain wrote his name into Panama folklore with a memorable goal late on.