European Champions Portugal come face to face with Morocco in Group B. Both teams will be looking to secure their first victory in this year’s finals. Defeat for either could make progress from the group stage very difficult.
Portugal vs Morocco
1:00 pm BST, 20th June
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
World Cup History
Surprisingly, Portugal have only qualified for the finals six times. Their best performance came in their first finals. In 1966 in England, they came away with third place. It was 40 years before they came close to replicating that feat when they finished fourth in 2006. Being current European Champions, the nation will be expecting a better performance than in 2014 where they failed to progress from the group stage.
This will be Morocco’s first finals since 1998 and only their fourth overall. Only once have they progressed past the group stages. This came in Mexico in 1986 where they were knocked out in the last 16. With Portugal and Spain in this group a repeat of 86 looks unlikely but not impossible.
Road to the World Cup
Portugal qualified for the finals by winning nine out of their ten games. Even so, it was only goal difference that saw them top the group after the final games. Switzerland ran the Portuguese very close, finishing on the same points total; however, their inferior goal difference saw Ronaldo and co. head straight to the finals.
Morocco’s qualification was far from easy, also. Qualification started badly as far as they were concerned, but the team soon began to turn draws into wins. Their mean defence did not concede a goal but still required a final game victory away against the Ivory Coast to guarantee qualification.
Pre-World Cup Friendlies
Portugal have been in and out of form heading into this tournament. Victories over Egypt and Algeria have been accompanied by a defeat to the Netherlands and a respectable draw in Belgium.
Morocco came into the finals on the back of a 17 game unbeaten run which included beating Nigeria in the African Nations Championship Final. In the lead up to the finals, they have defeated Serbia, Uzbekistan, Slovakia and Estonia.
Story So Far at the 2018 World Cup
In their first match, Portugal were involved in an early game of the tournament contender. Ronaldo scored a hat-trick but it was still not enough to beat Spain. His third goal was a stunning late free kick to equalise and make the final score 3-3.
Morocco, having had the majority of possession but lacking in the final third, lost 1-0 to Iran. An own goal deep into added on time secured Iran’s first victory at a World Cup in 20 years. Morocco restricted their opponents to just 32% possessions but could not find a breakthrough. In the end, Iran, who failed to have a single attempt in the second half, came away with a surprise win.
Ones to Watch
Like others, Portugal may not consider themselves as a one-man team; however, they rely heavily on star forward Cristiano Ronaldo. He scored 15 goals in nine games during qualifying and another three during their opening game in Russia against Spain. There is the potential for Portugal to meet Argentina in the last eight or should that be Ronaldo vs Messi?
Defender Medhi Benatia (aka Captain Morocco), could have played for France, but instead chose Morocco, much to the delight of fans. Last year the Juventus player, dropped himself from the national team after losing his place in the Juve side. He stated that he thought it unfair to play for his national side when he had lost his place at club level. This only endeared himself more to fans. Part of a defence that did not concede during qualifying, he scored in the 2-0 win away to the Ivory Coast which sealed their first World Cup Finals place in 20 years. He described it as “the most beautiful moment of my career”.
Portugal manager Fernando Santo could be tempted to make changes to his side. In defence, the team looked vulnerable, especially the older pair of Pepe and Jose Fonte. A change up front could also be made to take some of the burden off Ronaldo.
Morocco will likely be unchanged, even though they were defeated in their first game. Only an own goal deep into added on time caused them to come away from a game they dominated with nothing.
Portugal are likely to stick with their tried and still trusted 4-4-2 formation. Portugal will also be keen to find a winning formula that does not rely too heavily on Ronaldo. Whether this can be done remains to be seen.
Morocco are set to stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation used in their opening game. However, don’t be surprised if they switch to a 4-3-3 to give Portugal’s ageing centre-halves a tough time. Their togetherness and toughness could also upset a few Portuguese.