Morocco v Portugal
Morocco have already made history at this World Cup, progressing to a quarter-final for the first time ever, after an heroic display against Spain. Once again it were the defensive organization and tactical discipline that saw them hang on to penalties, where Yassine Bounou stopped La Roja from scoring a single spot-kick. Lead by Sofyan Amrabat in the middle and the centre-back pairing of Romain Saïss and Nayef Aguerd, Morocco has proved to be one of the most resilient sides in this tournament.
That is backed up by the fact that Morocco has kept three clean sheets in four games so far – the most ever by an African side in a single World Cup. But the task they are now facing, is bigger than ever. If they manage to see off Portugal, the Atlas Lions will become the first team from Africa to reach the semi-final of a World Cup. Each of the previous three representatives, Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010, failed to get over the quarter-final hurdle. In addition to that, African sides have only managed to knock out their European counterparts in 2 of the previous 11 knockout meetings, with Morocco’s recent win against Spain being one of them.
It has been 16 years since a Portugal side featuring Luís Figo, Pauleta, Simão, Deco, Nuno Gomes and Ricardo Carvalho as well as a 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo reached the semifinals after topping their group and beating the Netherlands 1-0 and edging England on penalties, only to suffer the same fate as their 1966 World Cup debut, when they lost 2-1 to hosts England, and lose 1-0 in the semis to France thanks to a first-half penalty from Zinedine Zidane. Since then, Portugal have been eliminated in the Round of 16 twice to Spain in 2010 and Uruguay in 2018 and suffered a group stage elimination in 2014, but today, they find themselves two games away from a first-ever World Cup Final.
The biggest worry for Morocco is the injury situation. Aguerd had to come off with a thigh injury against Spain and according to reports, he could be out for the remainder of the tournament. Captain Saïss also struggled and is a doubt. The same goes for Amrabat, who played with a back injection to relieve the pain, not wanting to let down his teammates. It will be crucial for them to have at least two of three available for selection. Expect this to be a far closer game than on paper, and you only have to look at how Morocco nullified Spain to prove that.
There’s no other way to put it: Bruno Fernandes is flying right now for club and country. Having picked up a goal and an assist a week earlier in a 4-2 win against Aston Villa in the EFL Cup, Fernandes grabbed a brace in a 4-0 win against Nigeria and led Portugal to a 3-2 win against Ghana with a brace of assists, before scoring a brace in a 2-0 win against Uruguay and being rested in Portugal’s third match against South Korea.
He delivered another world-class performance against Switzerland, assisting Pepe’s 33rd-minute goal to double Portugal’s lead after Ramos’ 17th-minute opener, completing five out of five long balls and three key passes as well as winning four out of four ground duels. If Portugal are to get past Morocco and make it to the semifinals for the third time, Fernandes will have to be at his best – I’m expecting another clutch performance from the Manchester United playmaker.
At 21 years old, Gonçalo Ramos has emerged as Benfica’s attacking talisman following the sale of Darwin Núñez to Liverpool, with the Portuguese striker scoring 17 goals and 7 assists in 24 appearances and staking out a starting spot on the tip of Roger Schmidt’s 4-2-3-1 at the Luz. This form, combined with a spate of injuries, would see him earn a call-up to Portugal’s World Cup squad, making his international debut and grabbing a goal and an assist in a 4-0 win vs. Nigeria.
After coming off the bench in their first two fixtures, Ramos was given a surprise start ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and quickly rewarded Fernando Santos’ trust, rifling a shot past Yann Sommer and into the top corner, before adding two more goals and an assist in a 6-1 win. He has become the second Portuguese player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup knockout round after Eusébio against North Korea in 1966, and after recording five shots on target against Switzerland, I’m expecting him to get at least one shot on target vs. Morocco.
Coming up against the strongest attack they’ve faced so far this tournament, Saïss and Morocco will have more than enough to do on Saturday. Averaging one foul a match so far this World Cup, he looks destined to at least maintain that record.
At Besiktas this season he is averaging 2 fouls a game and back at Wolves in the Premier League, he was one of 15 defenders with 30+ fouls last season. He is not the most athletic and though he reads the game well, he is not unfamiliar with pulling the shirt of attackers who are trying to run in behind. Saïss is also often part of mass confrontations, either starting them or quickly joining in, which obviously can result in a yellow card.
Likely to be paired up with Jawad El Yamiq, a slower and less athletic defender than Aguerd, Saïss could find himself in situations where Morocco are better off with making an early foul before Portugal can get their attacks going.
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