DOHA, Qatar – Morocco has pulled off the biggest surprise of the round of 16 when it defeated Spain on penalties to get to the quarterfinals for the first time in its history, but the North Africans will need to repeat their feats of valor if they hope to defeat a revitalized Portugal.
Old rivals England and France will face off in the quarterfinal game’s high-profile finale later in the day.
Morocco aims to continue its winning streak
Walid Regragui, the manager of Morocco, reflected on his team’s progress by saying, “Before, it was just the Moroccans who backed us; now, it is the Africans and Arabs.”
The World Cup is now all about the Moroccans. As the first African team to reach the quarterfinals in almost ten years, they represent so much more than just their own country. They made history during the first “Arab” World Cup by becoming the first Arab country to advance to the World Cup’s quarter finals.
However, this has not been the valiant effort of an underdog riding its good fortune.
With only one own goal allowed thus far, the Moroccans have the toughest defense in the competition. Only Argentina has allowed fewer shots than the Atlas Lions, despite having the toughest path to the final eight of any quarterfinalists, having to play fellow quarterfinalist Croatia, Belgium, and 2010 World Cup champion Spain along the way.
Yassine “Bono” Bounou must be avoided when teams do manage to get shots off. Over 300 minutes of play, including a penalty shootout in which he stopped two shots, have passed without the Sevilla goalkeeper conceding a goal to an opponent.
Morocco is down to its bare essentials after suffering injuries to three or four key players in its previous game against Spain and a demanding schedule that comprised games against the world’s second, seventh, and twelfth-ranked countries. However, it won’t dim the team’s motivation or goals.
Head coach Regragui responded to a query about making a deep run in the competition by saying, “At some point in Africa, we have to be ambitious and why not win the World Cup?
A Portuguese team that destroyed Switzerland 6 to 1 stands in Morocco’s way of making further history. This is the first game under Fernando Santos that the Portuguese team appeared to be completely unrestricted and playing to its attacking potential.
However, to maximize the team’s potential, Santos took the hardest choice of his career by benching Cristiano Ronaldo, the best player in the history of his country. There are indications that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner is finally succumbing to aging despite having a dazzling career and holding the distinction of greatest goalscorer in international football history (118 goals in 194 caps).
While the 37-year-successor, Gonçalo Ramos, was making his first-ever start for the national team, he made use of the opportunity with panache.
To help Portugal thrash the Swiss, the 21-year-old Benfica striker scored three goals. Miroslav Klose, who is now the competition’s all-time leading scorer, was the last player to register a hat-trick on his World Cup debut.
But Ramos is not the only player who has gained freedom from Ronaldo’s absence. The Atlético Madrid star Joo Félix looked like the player who has long been seen as the player to carry the torch from Ronaldo, while his former Manchester United teammate Bruno Fernandes was at the height of his creative form.
The two countries’ most recent meeting was in a tense encounter during the World Cup group stage of 2018, which Ronaldo won with the game’s lone goal.
No side has scored more goals at the World Cup than Portugal (12), but will the unstoppable Portugal overcome the unmovable Morocco?