Cristiano Ronaldo strikes again to see Portugal past Morocco
African side the first to be knocked out of World Cup as European Champions dig in in Moscow
Cristiano Ronaldo scored Portugal’s early opener against Morocco. Photograph: Antonin Thuillier/AFP
Fernando Santos had wanted to see more from his supporting cast but, well, while the Portugal manager has Cristiano Ronaldo, it is probably not essential. Ronaldo did what Ronaldo does. He got into dangerous areas, he scored and he was decisive.
It did not matter that this was not a vintage Portugal performance. They got the job done and they have put one foot in the second round. Ronaldo’s goal came early and, after his hat-trick in the 3-3 draw with Spain, he is making the running for the Golden Boot.
Imagine if he were to win that to place alongside his Ballons d’Or. Ronaldo is a current European champion at club and international level. Imagine if he were to crown the lot by winning the World Cup.
What Morocco would have given for some of Ronaldo’s cutting edge. They had none and that is why their World Cup is over, which is a shame because there is much to like about Hervé Renard’s team. Driven by Hakim Ziyach and Noureddine Amrabat, the wide midfielders, they made the running and wove plenty of pretty patterns. But when the chances came in the second half, they blew each one.
Ronaldo’s bravery has never been open to question and the goal came when he plunged into a header as the boot of Karim El Ahmadi wafted about his ears. Once he had the position, the outcome was not in doubt.
Portugal had worked a short corner routine, allowing João Moutinho to whip in the outswinger, and Ronaldo’s connection was true, unlike Morocco’s marking. It was unusual for Renard’s team to be so loose but costly. The ball fizzed past Munir El Kajoui Mohamedi and Morocco’s grip on their World Cup status looked more fragile than ever.
Everybody connected to the north African nation had said the same thing before the tournament – the opening game was crucial. Everything depended on it but, against Iran, they had found a way to lose. That way was a 95th minute own goal from Aziz Bouhaddouz.
They were in the last-chance saloon but they were determined to play their high-tempo passing game, heavy on movement and pace in wide areas. They looked slick and they got in behind the Portugal defence, through Ziyach and Amrabat. But the question nagged: did they have the end product?
Amrabat shouted loudly for a penalty in the 26th minute, having wriggled past Raphaël Guerreiro and made it into the area. They were both at grabbing each other, before Amrabat went down, but neither the referee, Mark Geiger, nor his VAR team were moved to act. Guerreiro could be seen to inspect a set of deep scratch marks across his side after the incident.
Renard wanted to know why VAR did not intervene while he and his players also complained when José Fonte cleaned out Khalid Boutaïb in the box shortly afterwards. Again, there was no censure.
Mehdi Benatia could not react at the far post to convert a flick-on in first-half stoppage time but Portugal had the clearer chances before the interval. Following a surging run by Guerreiro, Ronaldo dragged narrowly wide of the far post while Ronaldo played in Gonçalo Guedes and he was denied by Munir.
There was needle between Benatia and Ronaldo, which first sparked when the Juventus defender went through the back of him on 26 minutes, treading on his foot in the process. Benatia would be booked for a tackle from behind on him later in the first-half.
Morocco continued to push in the second half and Santos, the Portugal manager, changed his shape to 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 when his team did not have the ball. It was a slender lead but it would do.
Morocco had their chances and only a wonderful save by Rui Patricio, the new Wolverhampton Wanderers signing, kept out Younés Belhanda’s flick header. Patricio got across to deflect up and over the crossbar. Twice, Benatia made smart moves inside the area only to blaze his shot wildly while Ziyach cut inside and saw Pepe deflect his effort over the crossbar.
It was not all perfect from Ronaldo on an individual level. He blasted two free-kicks from the edge of the area into the wall while he skied horribly when he ran onto an inviting chance. There was also the moment towards the end when he initiated contact inside the area and went down. He was lucky not to be booked. But, yet again, Ronaldo had found a way to win.
Portugal: Rui Patricio; Cedric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva (Gelson Martins 59),William Carvalho, Joao Moutinho (Adrien Silva 88), Joao Mario (Bruno Fernandes 69); Goncalo Guedes, Ronaldo. Booked: Adrien Silva.
Morocco: Mohamedi; Dirar, Benatia, da Costa, Hakimi; Nordin Amrabat, El Ahmadi (Fajr 86), Belhanda (Carcela-Gonzalez 75), Boussoufa, Ziyech; Boutaib (El Kaabi 69). Booked: Benatia.
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA).