Spain's slow slide towards World Cup exit summed up by Sarabia's unfortunate Rashford moment

Pablo Sarabia missed the team's first penalty in the shoot out/Spain were slowly sliding towards a World Cup exit long before Sarabia's unfortunate Rashford moment - GETTY IMAGES
Pablo Sarabia missed the team's first penalty in the shoot out/Spain were slowly sliding towards a World Cup exit long before Sarabia's unfortunate Rashford moment - GETTY IMAGES

Pablo Sarabia could not hold back the tears. Sergio Busquets wore a look of torment. Alvaro Morata, head bowed and eyes reddened, stared vacantly at the ground.

And then there was Rodri who, long after many of his Spain team-mates had retreated to the relative sanctuary of the dressing room, stood there alone with his thoughts, trying to compute what had happened, the occasional pat on the back and hug from an official bringing no solace or comfort as the Moroccan celebrations rung in his ears and punctured his senses.

Spain were out of a major tournament on penalties, again, and the Manchester City midfielder looked like a man who is going to need weeks, perhaps even months, to get over this disappointment.

It was over a year ago that Luis Enrique told his Spain players “they had homework to do” and set each of them a target of practising at least 1,000 penalties before the advent of the World Cup.

Like an errant schoolboy hoping to wing it through his exams, maybe they ignored their teacher’s instructions and thought things would be all right on the night.

How else to explain the limpness of those three missed spot-kicks, as weak and nervy in their execution as Japan’s had been 24 hours earlier against Croatia.

A player born in Madrid and one who plies his trade at Sevilla were the shoot-out’s heroes. Sadly for Spain, Achraf Hakimi and Yassine Bounou wore the red of Morocco. After that 7-0 opening thumping of Costa Rica, it has been a slow slide and a lot of sideways passes towards the exit for Spain.

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Twitch, for one, will be a less fun place now. The live streaming service has buzzed to the sound of Enrique’s musings on everything from his players’ sex lives to whether he puts onions in his Spanish omelette but it will quieten now while the volume is doubtless turned up back home given the inevitable inquests that will follow.

Enrique’s contract is due to expire at the end of this month and the Spain coach said he did not know what would happen next, even if he would not rule out carrying on - assuming, of course, that ends up being his decision to make.

“I can’t tell you. I don’t know this decision,” he said. “It’s not the right time to talk about my future. My contract is going to end but, as you know, I am very happy as national team coach, with the president [Luis Rubiales] and [Jose Francisco] Molina and I have always had great support from the president and sporting director.

"I could always carry on but I need to speak to the relevant people and everything will be influential I am sure.”

For all Spain’s dominance of the ball, it was not until the closing stages of normal time and extra time that Morocco’s goal came under any sustained pressure.

 Round of 16 - Morocco v Spain - Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar - December 6, 2022 Spain coach Luis Enrique reacts - Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Round of 16 - Morocco v Spain - Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar - December 6, 2022 Spain coach Luis Enrique reacts - Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Enrique’s side struggled to move the ball quickly or imaginatively enough to really disrupt Morocco’s compact defensive shape and, with neither the wit nor risk in their play to penetrate such highly organised, obdurate opponents centrally, they were routinely forced outside and did not much fancy their chances there either.

Spain delivered 29 crosses all told and Morocco dealt comfortably with them time and again. Nor could Spain transition quickly enough when Morocco’s counter-attacks broke down.

Since winning the World Cup in 2010 and retaining the European Championships two years later, Spain’s record in major tournaments has been defined mostly by premature exits and/or repeat pain from 12 yards.

Morocco inflicted the same misery at the same stage that Russia did four years ago when the host nation beat Spain on penalties in the last 16. Last year, at the delayed Euros, La Roja edged past Switzerland on spot-kicks in the quarter-finals but were defeated in the last four on penalties by Italy.

It is not usually Enrique’s style to venture into the dressing room after a game but he made an exception here. “I tried to cheer them up, lift their spirits and thanked them for their efforts,” he said. “I told them to push forward, that life continues and it’s a lesson that will stay with them for ever and in the future I hope it’s one they will learn from. If there is anyone who is responsible it is me.”

Enrique said he harboured no regrets over his choice of penalty takers and that “if I had another shoot out I would only substitute their goalkeeper” but it was clear he recognises Sarabia is going to need some careful handling for a while.

Pablo Sarabia of Spain reacts as he greets the Spanish fans after the FIFA World Cup 2022 round of 16 soccer match between Morocco and Spain at Education City Stadium in Doha, Qata - Mohamed Messara/Shutterstock
Pablo Sarabia of Spain reacts as he greets the Spanish fans after the FIFA World Cup 2022 round of 16 soccer match between Morocco and Spain at Education City Stadium in Doha, Qata - Mohamed Messara/Shutterstock

The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder had been introduced with just a couple of minutes of second half extra time stoppages to play, precisely to take a penalty and get Spain off to a good start in the shoot-out. Suffice to say he had a rather eventful few minutes.

After brushing one post with almost the last kick of the game and watching the chance to win it at the death go begging, Sarabia then hit the other post with his penalty and set in motion the collapse that would follow for Spain.

It did not feel entirely dissimilar to Marcus Rashford’s experience for England in the Euros final against Italy, when he had also been brought on in the 120th minute and missed his penalty.

“Pablo Sarabia is one player with whom I was very unfair,” Enrique said by way of consolation. “That’s the only punishment I have for myself. That’s the only thing I would change. I would have given more minutes to Pablo Sarabia.”