One thing is certain: Portugal’s encounter with Morocco is unlikely to live up to their bombastic opening game against Spain.
On a balmy night in Sochi, one of the greatest matches in World Cup history unfolded. Goals, controversy, drama – everything a neutral could want, wrapped in a delectable Iberian package.
By comparison, Morocco’s debut against Iran was cold water. A last-minute own goal from Aziz Bouhaddouz decided a tetchy slugfest on an afternoon when Herve Renard’s coven of attackers failed to gel.
These sides, however, are separated by just one point. Both need a win to keep their hopes alive with the winner needing to win the following key battles.
Mehdi Benatia (Morocco) vs Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
You have to hate him, even if a tiny part of you wants to be him.
Cristiano Ronaldo pouted, strutted and peacocked throughout the game against Spain but a hat-trick flatters his performance slightly.
The penalty was well-taken, but David de Gea’s howler gifted him a second. The third goal represented his only moment of real, blistering quality.
Mehdi Benatia made it to Russia the hard way. Raised in a rough Parisian banlieue, he progressed through the youth ranks at Marseille before a solid spell with Udinese was rewarded with a big money-move to Roma. Pep Guardiola came calling but the Moroccan floundered with injury and a lack of faith from the manager.
The defender showed great fortitude to rediscover his quality with Juventus and is heading into the twilight of his career just as his country make their first appearance at a World Cup since Mustapha Hadji, Youssef Chippo and France 1998.
Ronaldo will look to bully him physically but Benatia will use his impressive technique to bypass the Portuguese entirely. The 31-year-old will muster scrupulous support from Karim Al-Ahmadi in front of him with Ronaldo sure to drop deep and drive at the defence from the middle of the park.
Raphael Guerreiro (Portugal) vs Amine Harit (Morocco)
These players should be familiar to each other, with both plying their trade for their club’s bitterest rival.
Borussia Dortmund’s Portuguese left back is a tenacious tackler with a bustling engine but he will know well of the tricky insolence that Amine Harit brings to the table.
Harit, who appeared regularly for France at youth level before changing nationality to appear for his country of his parents’ birth, is pacy and unpredictable on the right-hand side.
Guerreiro will look to counter him by placing him on the back foot; Harit is less than scrupulous defensively, and will not relish having to track back in support of his right-back.
Joao Moutinho (Portugal) vs Romain Saiss (Morocco)
“We ran a lot we fought and that’s our spirit.”
Joao Moutinho’s comments to Record were bullish but so was his country’s performance against the former World Champions.
The Monaco man had less of the ball than he’d like against Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, putting in a tireless shift alongside transfer-rumour-made-flesh William Carvalho.
Moutinho’s abilities are well-known and well-honed. The Portuguese has anchored his nation’s midfield for over a decade, providing ballast to Fernando Santos’ glittering attacking talents.
Only four players completed more passes than Romain Saiss in the Championship last year. The Wolves midfielder was integral to his club’s promotion, doing the dirty work that allowed Ruben Neves to shine.
The 28-year-old, who is also capable of filling in at centre back, will look to circulate possession prudently away from Moutinho’s grasp.
The Portuguese is less mobile than he was in his prime and may struggle to keep up alongside his younger, fitter competitor if denied time on the ball.
If not, he can hurt Morocco instantly with his vision.
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