Morocco, who beat Spain in the last 16, are one of the stories of the World Cup 2022
Portugal demolished Switzerland 6-1 to advance to the quarter-finals in Qatar
Back the favorites to come out on top despite Morocco’s heroics so far this winter
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Every World Cup has a surprise package and Morocco have claimed that title this time around. The Atlas Lions are only the third African nation to reach the quarter-finals of the tournament, after Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2010. One more win and they would make continental history by becoming Africa’s first semi-finalists.
As far as their individual country is concerned, this is already Morocco’s most successful World Cup ever. They had only reached the knockout phase once before, in 1986, but were eliminated by West Germany in the round of 16. At that stage this year, Morocco knocked out Spain in dramatic fashion.
Most expected their adventure to come to an end on Tuesday. Morocco had done brilliantly to finish top of their group ahead of Croatia, Belgium, and Canada, but they were huge underdogs in their meeting with Spain, one of the favorites to lift the trophy with the best online sportsbooks.
Yet Morocco produced a magnificent performance to frustrate Luis Enrique’s side, who made more than 1000 passes but mustered just a single shot on target across two hours of soccer. Morocco successfully held them at bay throughout that time, then won 3-0 on penalties. The winning spot-kick was coolly converted by Achraf Hakimi, born and raised in Madrid.
Morocco’s main strength is their defensive solidity. They have only conceded once in Qatar, and that was an unfortunate own goal in a 2-1 victory over Canada. Morocco are supremely well organized without the ball, for which Walid Regragui deserves huge credit - especially as he only took charge of his first game in September.
Fernando Santos made a huge decision ahead of Portugal’s last-16 tie against Switzerland. Cristiano Ronaldo was dropped to the bench and replaced up front by Goncalo Ramos, a 21-year-old striker with just three international caps to his name.
It was a bold move. Had it backfired, Santos would no doubt have been roundly criticized back home and abroad. Yet it was also the right thing to do. His decision was vindicated when Ramos scored a superb hat-trick in a 6-1 victory over a team that had come close to drawing with Brazil in the group stage.
It was not just that Ramos turned in a superb individual display. Portugal’s entire attack looked much freer and fluid without Ronaldo, who increasingly restricts his involvement in the game to the 18-yard box. With Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Joao Felix buzzing around behind Ramos, Portugal delivered a tremendous attacking display.
Ronaldo will again have to make do with a place on the bench here, although he will probably come on at some point. Santos must hope that the 37-year-old does not kick up a fuss, as he did when he was regularly left out of the Manchester United team earlier this season.
"It is important to look at the example of this player's history, he is one of the best players in the world at playing professionally, being captain - all we have to do is think about this team collectively,” Santos said after Switzerland win.
Portugal arrived in Qatar with question marks over whether they would be constrained by Santos’ tactical conservatism, but the manager has struck a healthy balance so far. Portugal’s attack certainly looked liberated against the Swiss, but Morocco’s backline will almost certainly be harder to break down this weekend.
With Qatar having been knocked out long ago, Morocco almost feel like the de facto hosts at this World Cup. In each of their matches, they have had the backing of the majority of the crowd, with thousands having traveled to Qatar to watch their team. As the last Arab and Muslim nation standing, they also have the support of local Qataris and soccer fans from across the region.
There will be no tactical surprises from Regragui. His side will pack 10 outfield players behind the ball and compress space between the lines. When Morocco win possession, they will attack directly by playing incisive passes through the pitch. Wingers Sofiane Boufal and Hakim Ziyech are the key men in terms of leading Morocco’s transitions from defense to attack.
However, Tuesday’s last-16 clash will have taken a lot out of the Atlas Lions, both mentally and physically. Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd are fitness doubts for this weekend, while Sofyan Amrabat may need another round of pain-killing injections in order to take part.
While Morocco were forced to dig deep for 120 minutes against Spain, Portugal had in effect secured their place in the last eight at half-time of their meeting with Switzerland. Their players were able to conserve energy in the second half, so Portugal should be fresher than their opponents here.
Morocco will focus their efforts on keeping things tight at the back, and they may struggle to get up the pitch to cause Portugal problems. For that reason, back the favorites to win to nil in Doha.
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Teams: Morocco vs Portugal
Location: Al Thumama Stadium, Doha, Qatar
Time: Saturday, 10 December 2022, 10:00 AM EST
How to Watch: Fox Sports, Telemundo, fuboTV
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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