The atmosphere inside the Luzhniki Stadium was electric for this tasty match up in the second round of games in Group B. Desperately unlucky to fall to a late defeat (thanks to an own goal) against Iran in their first game, Morocco made a couple of changes to force the issue against the European Champions, Portugal. Khalid Boutaïb and Nordin Amrabat were preferred in the forward line, and they looked lively straight from the off – Amrabat delivering a teasing cross from the right that was collected by Ziyech, his ball back into the box met by Boutaib, whose good effort just crept over the bar from 10 yards. Then, bang! The Atlas Lions fall asleep for a Portugal corner and Joao Moutinho expertly curls the ball right into the mixer. Cristiano Ronaldo is free, about six yards out, to bury the diving header and give A Seleção das Quinas an early lead. Opportunistic, smart play from the Portuguese to get their noses in front. Morocco were not to let their heads go down, however, and continued to press high up the pitch with purpose and quality. A great deal of endeavour failed to amount too much in terms of true chances for the Moroccans, and Portugal should have doubled their advantage after a lovely dink over the back four from Ronaldo sent Goncalo Guedes away in the Moroccan penalty area. His volley was well saved by Munir Mohamedi and immediately the Atlas Lions charged back up the field and a won a corner of their own. A delightful ball in was glanced goalwards by Younes Belhanda, whose effort whizzed narrowly wide of the far post. For all their hard-work and impressive build up play the Moroccans found themselves trailing at half time to Ronaldo’s early header.
After the break it was more of the same – the Portuguese not taking too many chances but aiming to hit their attacking talisman, Ronaldo whenever opportunity arose. The Moroccans came out fighting: the excellent young Ajax star Ziyach sending over a pinpoint in-swinging free kick, to which Belhanda rises and forces a tremendous save out of Rui Patricio. Portugal retreated deeper and deeper, frantically attempting to defend the intense pressure from the Atlas Lions. It was fantastic to watch the individual battles all over the pitch. A dangerous free kick from Ziyach once more was met by Juventus defender Benatia just six yards out, the ball ricocheting off his shoulder rather than his head and bouncing agonisingly wide. Hands down the man of the match, Ziyach picked up the ball on the right, skilfully cutting inside and darting past two Portugal defenders before unleashing a terrific drive that Pepe throws himself in front of, the ball deflecting over Rui Patricio’s bar. Desperate stuff from the Portuguese. Somehow they survive until the final whistle and Morocco hearts are broken. It is hard to justify the results based upon their two terrific performances, however they are heading home from Group B. Portugal were more than fortunate and after a thrilling game against Spain, they will need to improve significantly to progress any further than the Second Round based on this showing. It’s Cristiano Ronaldo who holds their fortunes in the palm of his hand.
Man of the Match: Hakim Ziyech (MOR)
Best: Hakim Ziyech, Younès Belhanda, Nordin Amrabat (MOR), Rui Patrício, Pepe, William Carvalho (POR)