History was made on Tuesday night as Morocco withstood Spain’s relentless passing rhythm to eliminate the 2010 world champions and book their first-ever place in the quarter-finals of football’s blue-riband tournament. That is was achieved via a penalty shootout only added to the drama, tension and eventual euphoria.
It’s been an incredible journey of heart and endeavour from The Atlas Lions, who only appointed Walid Regragui in August. In such a short space of time, the former Morocco international has developed a team both defensively resolute and unpredictability entertaining going forward. Spain felt the full wrath of that tactical composition at the Education City Stadium.
Their quarter-final opponents, Portugal, avoided any form of heart-in-mouth tension by comprehensively dispatching Switzerland 6-1. Eyebrows were raised before kick-off when the team news filtered through and Cristiano Ronaldo’s name was absent from the starting XI. It mattered little as Fernando Santos’ men ripped through the Swiss with a free-scoring triumph.
Ronaldo’s replacement on the night, Goncalo Ramos, netted a hat-trick and will surely retain his place against a watertight Moroccan defence. The 37-year-old superstar will likely have to be patient for an introduction in this winner-takes-all showdown for a place in the World Cup semi-finals.
The Ronaldo story took another turn on Thursday morning as reports emerged that he had threatened the leave the Portugal squad after finding out that he was benched for the game against Switzerland – before calming down and realising the negative impact it could have had.
However, the Portugal Football Federation has emphatically denied these reports, releasing a statement in support of Ronaldo.
It read: “News released this Thursday reports that Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to leave the national team during a conversation with Fernando Santos, national coach.
“The FPF clarifies that at no time did the captain of the national team, Cristiano Ronaldo, threaten to leave the national team during the internship in Qatar.
“Cristiano Ronaldo builds up a unique track record every day at the service of the national team and the country, which must be respected and which attests to the unquestionable degree of commitment to the national team.
“Incidentally, the degree of dedication of the player most capped by Portugal was again demonstrated – if necessary – in the victory against Switzerland, in the round of 16 of the 2022 World Cup.
“The national team – players, coaches and FPF structure – is, as it has been since the first day, fully committed and enthusiastic in building what the country wants to be Portugal’s best ever participation in a World Cup.”
Ronaldo also commented on the reports, tweeting: “A group too close to be broken by outside forces. A nation too brave to let itself be frightened by any adversary. A team in the truest sense of the word, which will fight for the dream until the end! Believe with us! Strength, Portugal!”
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Morocco’s success in Qatar has been built upon a foundation of midfield energy and defensive resilience. A robust and dynamic midfield consisting of standout star Sofyan Amrabat has kept the nation fiercely competitive and gone a long way to keeping clean sheets against Croatia, Belgium and now Spain. There, of course, is a down side to such enthusiastic industry: Morocco have conceded more fouls than any other nation at the 2022 World Cup (59) at a rate of 14.75 per game.
Ramos’ three goals against Switzerland means he is the first player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup knockout stage game since Tomas Skuhravy against Costa Rica in 1990. Such was his attacking proficiency that no player registered more shots (six) or shots on target (five) than him in the first knockout round. Santos has a managerial quandary between keeping Ronaldo out of the side, or benching Ramos. He is unlikely to choose the latter option after his heroics on Tuesday night.
This will be the third meeting between these two nations, who have met previously in the World Cup. In 1986, Morocco secured a 3-1 win in Group F, with Abderrazak Khairi netting a brace and Abdelkarim Krimau putting the gloss on a famous win. Four years ago in another group-stage showdown, Ronaldo scored the only goal of a 1-0 win for Portugal.