Morocco once again showed incredible composure and proved they are not intimidated by the occasion as the Atlas Lions became the first African and Arab team to enter the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup yesterday.
Morocco knocked out Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal 1-0 through a 42nd-minute goal from Youssef En-Nesyri at the Al Thumama Stadium, displaying incredible defensive solidity, despite having a myriad of injuries to deal with.
Going into their quarter-final tie against the former European champions, Morocco had already made the football world take notice of them after they held fellow semi-finalist and 2018 runners-up Croatia to a draw in the group stage.
They had also stunned World No 2 Belgium, former champions Spain and now with the Portugal scalp, Walid Regragui’s men have marched into the last four stage. In eight and a half hours of game time in Qatar, no opposition player has scored against them. The only time they have conceded, against Canada, was an own goal.
“We came up against a really great Portugal team. We’re drawing on all we have, we still have guys injured. I told the guys before the match we had to write history for Africa. I’m very, very happy,” coach Regragui said after the match.
Morocco played more than half of the eight minutes of stoppage time with 10 players as Walid Cheddira was sent off with two yellow cards.
Morocco, encouraged by the majority of the capacity crowd went into defensive mode as Portugal, who again left Ronaldo out of their starting line-up preferring last 16’s hat-trick hero Goncalo Ramos in the team, attacked from the start.
A fourth-minute free kick for Portugal from wide on the right was swung into the penalty area, and met by Joao Felix’s diving header but Yassine Bounou was alert to make a fine save.
But the supply quickly dried up thereafter as Morocco closed the passing lanes and frustrated the Portuguese attackers. Felix had two more half chances in the first half but Morocco gained in confidence and found a sudden spring in their step, frequently breaking on the counter attack.
Left back Yahya Attiat-Allah made several surging runs down the flank, presenting Selim Amallah with a good chance in the 35th minute, which he was unable to convert.
But seven minutes later, a high ball from the fullback into the Portuguese box was met by a towering header from En-Nesyri, out jumping both goalkeeper Diogo Costa and defender Ruben Dias to hand Morocco the lead.
Portuguese frustration was obvious as they swarmed the referee at the end of the first half, complaining that several penalty appeals had been turned down.
The North Africans came close to a second goal four minutes into the second half as Jawad El Yamiq got a touch to Hakim Ziyech’s in-swinging free kick but Costa was in place this time to block.
Ronaldo’s entry in the 51st minute was met with a loud chorus of jeers, but
he did inject a new energy into the Portugal side for whom Ramos, the hat-trick hero of their 6-1 win over Switzerland in the previous round, missed with a close-in header in the 58th minute. Bruno Fernandes hit the top of the crossbar five minutes later as Portugal threw more into attack and Morocco began to sit deeper. Bounou saved again from Felix with seven minutes left.
Morocco’s Cheddira was sent off in stoppage time after receiving two yellow cards in quick succession. But the Moroccans, to the delight of their raucous support, held out for a famous victory.
Five-time Ballon d’Or winner and Portugal’s all-time leading goal scorer Ronaldo with 118 goals in 195 appearances, stormed off the pitch after the final whistle crying effusively.
Ronaldo, 37, who with Lionel Messi has dominated world football for the past two decades, has likely played his last World Cup match.
Portugal manager Fernando Santos said he would not change his decision of leaving Ronaldo on the bench.
“I do not regret leaving Ronaldo on the bench,” coach Santos told a news conference.
“I used the team that played really well against Switzerland and there was no reason to change it. The strategic decision that I had to make was one of the hardest, but I can’t think with my heart, I have to think with my head. It’s not that Ronaldo is no longer a great player, that has nothing to do with it,” he said.
Three African teams had fallen in the quarter-final stage before Regragui’s boys finally ended the continent’s long wait for a semi-final place. Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 had all made strong runs in the tournament but were unable to go beyond the last eight.
“We’re becoming the team that everyone loves at this World Cup, because we’re showing that even if you don’t have as much talent, if you show that desire, heart and belief, you can achieve. I’m sure many of you will say this is a miracle, but we’ve won without conceding against Belgium, Spain, Portugal and that’s the result of hard work.”
Morocco were without injured defenders Noussair Mazraoui and Nayef Aguerd yesterday, while captain Romain Saiss was stretchered off early in the second half.
Morocco will take on France on Wednesday at Al Bayt Stadium with the chance to become the first nation from outside Europe or South America to reach the final.
Till then Morocco carries the hopes of the Arab world and Africa in the tournament and everyone is onboard.
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