It was a historic day at the Luzhniki stadium as Cristiano Ronaldo headed home a 4th minute Moutinho cross to become the all-time leading European International goalscorer overtaking Ferenc Puskás of Hungary. However, that goal was one of the rare moments in the match where the Portuguese actually threatened the Moroccan goal in a match that was dominated by a Moroccan side bustling with flair and exuberance.
Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi, Younès Belhanda and Nordin Ambrabat were at the thick of the action right from the first minute of the game. The Moroccan’s desire to push forward and apply persistent pressure on the Portuguese side resulted in extended periods of play in the match where the Moroccan side had their tails up and the Portuguese were under the caution.
The Portuguese started the game with an expected 4-4-2 formation with Ronaldo and Guedes upfront. William Carvalho and Moutinho were to be the anchors at the centre of the park. They were flanked by Bernardo Silva on the right and Joao Mario on the left. At the back, they went unchanged with a Fonte-Pepe Centre-Back pairing supported by Rafael Guerreiro at Left-Back and Cedric at Right-Back. Rui Patricio started in goal.
Morocco, meanwhile, brought Nabil Dirar in at Right-Back and pushed Nordin Amrabat farther forward. Up front, Khalid Boutaib came in for Ayoub El Kaabi. They also made a change in Central Defence, as Romain Saïss dropped out in favour of Manuel Da Costa.
The Moroccans were quick off the block as Nordin Amrabat hared down the right flank and delivered a teasing cross which was retrieved back by Ziyech who sent it back into the danger zone. Boutaib got ahead of Fonte and headed just wide. This was a sign of things to come but unfortunately before that Cristiano Ronaldo had other ideas.
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From a 4th minute corner, which was taken short by Silva, Joao Moutinho sent a juicy delivery in from the left, to which Ronaldo met with a superb diving header. The World just witnessed Ronaldo make history as he became the leading European International Goal Scorer.
Soon after, Rafael Guerreiro made a darting run from left back through the centre of the park and set Ronaldo up, who swivelled around and somehow managed a shot which was scuffed just wide to the left of the post. Ronaldo was clearly in the mood and his body language suggested that he wanted more aggression from the Portuguese side.
As the game moved on it was quite clear how high the Moroccans were pressing up and trying to retrieve possession quickly after losing the ball. Tackles were flying in, and they clearly had only one thing in mind, and that was to apply pressure on the Portuguese. Mehdi Benatia went close with a header soon as they were building up momentum
Morocco were able to break down play in the middle of the park quite well and start quick breaks, especially down the right-hand side where Nordin Amrabat and Nabil Dirar were terrorising Rafael Guerreiro. Morocco threatened on many occasions from the flanks but were unable to fashion a clear-cut chance. They did, however, have a few shots and headers, which were either blocked or hopelessly wide.
Ronaldo had a couple of free kicks to take aim from but was not able to make the connection required to find the back of the net. He also set up Goncalo Guedes with a wonderfully timed looping through ball but Guedes could not find the back of the net as the keeper made a good reflex save with his left palm. It would be safe to say that this was by far the best performance by a team that was losing. It was such a pity that after playing 135 minutes of good football, Morocco still found themselves with nothing to show.
Portugal had their first real opportunity in the second half in the 51st-minute when Mario pulled back a sweet ball from the byline which was miscued by Silva. It came rolling towards Ronaldo who came charging at it like a wild beast but shot high and well above the goal.
Portugal were slowly getting into the game, but once again Morocco’s high press proved to the major narrative of the second half, and this time in the 55th minute, Nordin Amrabat made a good run on the right-hand side and set Belhanda in who fired a testing shot from the edge of the box to which Patricio was equal to.
The moment of the second half came at the 57th minute when Hakim Ziyech sent in a vicious in-swinging freekick from the right which was met splendidly met by Belhanda towards goal. But Patricio dived to his right and tipped it up and over the bar. That was a brilliant save and one which might turn out to be very crucial when the points are finally calculated.
There was more pressure from the Moroccans towards the end with Morocco trying their best. Morocco were dominant in the final quarter and had Portugal pinged back. The manager changed things up in the final minutes of the game by going to 3 at the back, but eventually, a solid defensive performance from the Portuguese side ensured they came out victorious. As the final whistle blew, the Portuguese breathed a sigh of relief whereas the Moroccans looked dejected on the pitch. That result sends them crashing out of the World Cup, and strengthens Portugal’s hold of the group who will play Iran next week in a match that could prove to be a decider.
Images via Guardian
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