After Cristiano Ronaldo’s magnificent performance against Spain netted Portgual only a draw in its World Cup opener, the Navigators look for more Wednesday when they face a desperate Morocco side in their second Group B match at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Ronaldo was the talk of the first full day of matches at the World Cup as he twice gave Portugal a one-goal lead before saving the day with an exquisite 25-yard free kick into the upper right corner in the 88th minute to salvage a 3-3 stalemate against eternal Iberian rival Spain on Friday. The Real Madrid superstar also converted a penalty in the fourth minute and got a gift second goal right before halftime when Spain keeper David De Gea made a hash of his 20-yard shot.
The three-goal haul lifted Ronaldo’s career international tally to 84 goals, tying him with Ferenc Puskas for the most among European players. Only Iran’s Ali Daei with 109 goals has more in international play, and Ronaldo also became just the fourth player to score in four different World Cups while doubling his all-time total in football’s premier tournament.
Morocco need at least a draw from this match to entertain any hope of reaching the knockout round. In their first World Cup appearance since 1998, the Atlas Lions suffered a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Iran on Friday as forwardc Aziz Bouhaddouz’s attempted clearance in the 95th minute turned into a bullet header and own goal into the back of his net.
The loss ended an 18-match unbeaten streak in international play and left the Atlas Lions with a difficult task in emerging from group play for the first time since doing so for the only time in team history in 1986.
LAST TIME OUT
Ronaldo’s incredible performance on the attacking half of the pitch covered the blushes of a suspect Portugal defense. Diego Costa manhandled the Navigators’ back line, throwing aside Pepe in the start of the buildup to Spain’s first goal before everyone on the back line completely broke down on a set piece that led to his second.
Portuguese keeper Rui Patricio could not be faulted on the last two goals, with Nacho’s sublime volley accounting for Spain’s third, and it is also very hard to pin any blame on him for Costa’s first goal, which fizzed between two defenders and inside the left post from the top of the penalty area.
Morocco did not make the most of its advantage in possession against Iran, with Hakim Ziyech coming closest to a goal in the 79th minute as his 20-yard slicing volley at the lower left corner was pushed away by Team Melli keeper Ali Berinvand. Given Ronaldo’s ethereal quality, talisman and defender Medhi Benatia likely will not make many forays forward except for corner kicks and set pieces in Portugal’s final third.
Portugal boss Fernando Santos likely will keep the same starting XI for this contest, though if there is any changes to be made, it will likely come up front where Andre Silva could replace Goncalo Guedes as Ronaldo’s forward partner.
For Morocco, one likely switch by Herve Renard will be inserting Nabil Dirar at right back. The Fenerbahce wing back missed the match against Iran due to a calf injury, and his replacement Noureddine Amrabat is not expected to be available due to a concussion suffered Friday.
None of three Santos’ substitutions had a marked impact on the contest as like-for-like replacements Joao Mario, Ricardo Quaresma and Andre Silva met the minimum expectations over the final 20 minutes by helping Portugal not concede a goal that would have put the match out of reach before Ronaldo’s heroics.
Renard was forced into one substitution due to Amrabat’s concussion as he called upon younger brother Sofyan, and the manager could not be blamed in being aggressive in his other two swaps of Bouhaddouz and Manuel De Costa given the Atlas Lions had been controlling play through possession while Iran did not take a shot the entire second half.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Portugal – Cristiano Ronaldo (F)
It is going to take something incredible as an encore act to top what Ronaldo did against Spain, but if there is any player at this World Cup who can do it, it’s Ronaldo. Renard knows that stopping him entirely is asking too much for his players, and the Atlas Lions boss is hoping they can make him “less exceptional.”
“Even if you conjure up the best plans to halt Ronaldo, he will find a way to break free. He always makes the difference, at the minimum to put his side on the right track and at best to win the game for them,” Renard said at his Tuesday press conference.
Morocco – Mehdi Benatia (D)
The linchpin of Morocco’s defense and team talisman, Benatia gets the first of two extremely challenging assignments in group play as he faces Ronaldo. The Portuguese striker is no stranger to Benatia from their Champions League skirmishes while playing for Juventus, but without the quality of the Italian side on both the back line and between the sticks in support for this endeavor, Benatia is going to need a towering performance if Morocco is going to get at least one point from this contest.
Per Ladbrokes, Portugal are solid 6-10 favorites to take all three points, while Morocco are getting 5-1 odds. The odds of the teams splitting points are 13-5. Unsurprisingly, Ronaldo is the favorite to be the first goal-scorer of the contest with 11-5 odds, followed by teammate Andre Silva at 9-2. Ayoub El-Kabbi and reserve striker Khalid Boutaib share joint-honors for Morocco at 17-2 to provide an unlikely lead.
Morocco is caught between a rock and a hard space as its loss to Iran left no wiggle room in its bid to reach the knockout round. The Atlas Lions would have to pull off two of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, beating a former World Cup winner and the reigning European champion, in back-to-back matches.
If there is one positive for the Atlas Lions, is that Ziyech will likely have time on the ball offensively given how Portugal prefer to sit back and hit on the counter. Whether he and El-Kabbi can turn possession into quality scoring chances against Portugal’s central defense pairing of Pepe and Jose Fonte is another question.
One of the more amazing things about Ronaldo’s play is how he has raised his game to correspond to the stakes. While he did get injured in the Euro final, he was the primary reason the Navigators got to the final. There is no more “Yeah, but…” to his game, he’s a superstar and while one can argue if he makes his teammates better, there is no argument he consistently puts Portugal in winning positions.
Portugal likely will not need another three-goal game from Ronaldo, but it also won’t turn away such an effort. This likely will be an even game for the first hour before the quality the Navigators can introduce in attack in those final 30 minutes will create separation in a 2-1 victory.
Portugal will close group play Monday versus Iran in Saransk, while Morocco will face 2010 champion Spain in Kaliningrad the same day.