FIFA World Cup 2018: Cristiano Ronaldo's brilliance takes Portugal past Morocco but Fernando Santos' team still needs to fire together

“Ferenc Puskás falls behind in history, as does Morocco on the day,” Peter Drury’s booming voice penetrated living rooms across the globe, giving goosebumps to millions of eyeballs focussed on the spectacle as Cristiano Ronaldo facilitated yet another early goal for Portugal, sending supporters of the reigning European champions into a frenzy. Ronaldo’s header on the fourth minute proved to be the difference between the two sides as Morocco went down fighting.

Here are four takeaways from Portugal’s hard-fought 1-0 victory against Morocco that eliminated the African nation from contention for the knockout stages in spite of a jaw-dropping display.

Morocco’s magnificent pressing
Vibrant, proactive and stellar — Morocco produced one of the finest displays of any World Cup, and arguably the best performance by an African nation in this edition. Falling behind due to a lapse of concentration at the back, Hervé Renard’s side then carved open the Portuguese defence at will, circulating the ball with slick passes and rapid movement across the wide channels. 86% of Morocco’s attacks originated from either wing as Nouri Amrabat and Hakim Ziyech ran riot, especially in the second half.

It is a pity that the Atlas Lions did not score, but their tenacity worried Fernando Santos so much that he changed his formation halfway into the game from 4-4-2 into a 4-5-1. Mbark Boussoufa was spectacular in possession and commanding off it, controlling the tempo of the game from start to finish.

Cristiano Ronaldo scores against Morocco during the FIFA World Cup 2018 on 20 June. AFP

Cristiano Ronaldo scores against Morocco during the FIFA World Cup 2018 on 20 June. AFP

Pressing is a ploy most modern teams are fond of, but not many are particularly good at it. Morocco ran 10.14 km in total, around 3 km more than the Portugal players, hassling the Portuguese central midfielders — William Carvalho being the most susceptible to losing possession in dangerous areas. That Morocco attack with an alarming intensity is a well-documented fact and they totally outplayed the Navigators in the second half, but intricate attacks do not count for much without a satisfactory end product. Just four of the fifteen shots Renard’s side registered were on target. Their pressing game was on point, but precision at goalmouth was where Morocco stumbled.

Ronaldo this, Ronaldo that, Ronaldo always delivers
In a tournament when most big names have had false starts, Cristiano Ronaldo took charge of the race for the Golden Boot skipping past Russia’s Denis Cheryshev with a brave header in the fourth minute as Karim El Ahmadi’s raised boot brushed past his ear. In the process, Ronaldo cemented another legacy to become the European with most international goals — 85 goals in 152 appearances, only Iran’s Ali Daei ahead of him in world football.

“Cristiano is like a port wine. He knows how to refine his capacity and age at his best. He is constantly evolving, contradictory to the other players. What he does now is not what he did three or four years ago, and not what he will be doing in a few years from now,” Santos commented after the game, shedding light on what sets apart the Real Madrid talisman from other footballing stars.

At Moscow, Portugal had just two shots on target, but it was Ronaldo’s decisiveness in the box that gave them early lead. Following a short corner, Joao Moutinho swerved in a cross into the penalty area. Morocco, man-marking vehemently, failed to read Ronaldo’s movement as the 33-year-old found a sliver of space between two Morocco players to head the ball into the near corner.

There was a lot of talk about how David de Gea’s errors had contributed to Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Spain, but nobody can deny that Ronaldo comes up with the goods when it matters. On Thursday, Ronaldo ran less than any other Portugal’s outfield starters, but he not only offered himself up as a passing outlet on the left flank to release pressure, but burst into tireless runs at every opportunity, capping off yet another all-round performance.

Hakim Ziyech has great things destined for him
The 25-year-old attacking midfielder is certainly Morocco’s brightest talent and it was proved time and again against Portugal. Last season’s Dutch Footballer of the Year started the game in his usual position on the left wing, before switching to the right later in the game but managed to terrorise both Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro.

Ziyech had single-handedly led his club Ajax to the Europa League finals last season and almost pulled off a similar feat against the European champions at Moscow. With a superlative passing array in his arsenal, Ziyech wasn’t afraid to take his chances and almost levelled the game with a deft move in the 89th minute. Receiving the ball from Amrabat on the right, Ziyech cut inside and rounded two Portuguese players with nimble feet to unleash a powerful shot, only to see it get deflected by a diving Pepe.

What elevates Ziyech’s game is his tremendous work-rate. Already being linked to a host of Premier League and Bundesliga clubs, this Moroccan is surely going places.

Portugal has results, but where are the performances?
Four points from their first two fixtures in this tricky group, Portugal are already at the doorstep of qualification for the knockout stages, but the performances say another thing. Barring Ronaldo, not a single Portugal player can vouch for a well-rounded display in the first two games.

Conceding possession to sit deep may be a fruitful tactical strategy, but allowing a lesser heralded opposition to walk all over and control the game is a faux pas of the highest order and Portugal did just that. Not only did they refuse to take initiative, but were bypassed at an alarming rate. The resilience that Portugal had showed during the 2016 Euro campaign seems missing and unless the midfield and defence fires, Portugal will be taken to the cleaners in spite of Ronaldo’s best efforts.

Santos admitted that he was not happy with his team’s performance, also acknowledging that the result was extremely unfair to the Moroccans. Loose in possession, insipid in the final third and nervy in defence — the Selecaos hit the trifecta of predicaments at the Luzhniki Stadium, only for Ronaldo to rescue his teammates. Rui Patricio put in a solid shift below the bar, as he did against Spain, but Portugal’s captain needs the rest of the supporting cast to step up soon.

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Updated Date: Jun 21, 2018 12:23 PM

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