Morocco have already caused an upset in the round of 16 by beating Spain on penalties to advance to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history, but the North Africans will need to replicate their heroism if they are to overtake. a reinvigorated Portugal.
Later in the day, the blockbuster final match of the quarter-finals will pit former foes England and France against each other.
“Before, only Moroccans supported us, now it’s Africans and Arabs,” Moroccan coach Walid Regragui said of his team’s journey.
Moroccans have become the darlings of the World Cup. In the first “Arab” World Cup, they became the first Arab nation to qualify for the quarter-finals of the World Cup and, as the first African team to qualify for the quarter-finals in more than a decade. a decade, they represent much more than their own. nation.
But it was not the heroic performance of an underdog on his luck.
The Moroccans have the meanest defense in the competition, having conceded just one own goal so far. Despite having the toughest run to the last eight of any quarter-final – facing Croatia, Belgium and 2010 World Cup champions Spain, only Argentina have conceded fewer shots than the Lions ‘Atlas.
When teams get shots, they have to face Yassine “Bono” Bounou. The Sevilla keeper hasn’t conceded a goal against an opposing player in over 300 minutes of football, including a penalty shootout where he saved two penalties.
After three or four key players injured in their previous game against Spain and a grueling fixture list that included games against second, seventh and 12th ranked nations in the world, Morocco are reduced to the bare essentials. But that won’t dampen the spirit or ambition of the team.
Asked about the possibility of going deep into the tournament, head coach Regragui said: “At some point in Africa we have to be ambitious and why not win the World Cup?”
In Morocco’s history, there is a Portuguese side that seemed, for the first time under Fernando Santos, to be fully unleashed and play to their attacking potential as they beat Switzerland 6-1.
But in order to fulfill the team’s potential, Santos made the toughest decision of his career, dropping the country’s greatest player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite his stellar career and a title as the greatest goalscorer international football has ever seen (118 goals in 194 caps), there are signs that age is finally catching up with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Unlike the 37-year-old’s place among the most famous athletes, his replacement Gonçalo Ramos was making his first start for the national team, and he seized his chance with aplomb.
The 21-year-old Benfica striker scored three goals to help Portugal overcome Switzerland. The last player to score a hat-trick on his full World Cup debut was Miroslav Klose, who is now the competition’s all-time top scorer.
But Ramos isn’t the only player released by Ronaldo’s absence. His former Manchester United team-mate Bruno Fernandes was at his creative best and Atlético Madrid star João Félix looked like the player who has long been seen as the man who took over from Ronaldo.
The last time the two teams met was in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup in a frenetic game which Ronaldo settled with the only goal in the contest.
No team has scored more than Portugal’s 12 at the World Cup, but can the unstoppable Portugal beat the steadfast Morocco?
The biggest game of the round is left for last as world champions France, who are looking to become the first country in 60 years to retain the World Cup, face an England side on the verge of reaching only his third semi-final.
Although both teams feature some of the best players in the world, eyes inevitably turn to Kylian Mbappé. The PSG striker was simply sensational in this tournament. He’s scored five goals in just three starts so far, already surpassing his 2018 tally.
The biggest question before the match is whether England can chain the striker.
“England have prepared for Kylian, but he can make a difference,” said France coach Didier Deschamps. “We have other players, but Kylian is Kylian and he can make a difference.”
Kyle Walker, who is likely to be the defender in charge of stopping Mbappé, was confident when asked about it.
“I understand what I have to do and that is stop it,” he said. “It’s probably easier said than done, but I don’t underestimate myself.”
But Mbappé is not the only French threat in the future. On the opposite flank is Ousmane Dembélé who isn’t the complete product like Mbappé but is no less dangerous with his searing pace and dribbling. Between the speedsters is Olivier Giroud, who became France’s all-time top scorer earlier in the tournament while operating as a foil for the wide men.
Behind the top three is Atlético man Antoine Griezmann, who after a few difficult seasons returns to being the player who took Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup by storm.
Despite the excellent performances of Harry Maguire and John Stones in the heart of the England defense so far, they have not been tested by anything close to this attack at a major tournament.
However, unlike previous tournaments, England have plenty of tools to hurt a vulnerable French defence.
Along with Portugal, the Three Lions are Qatar’s top scorers. They have won their previous two games 3-0 and, for the first time in this century, come into this game with more depth to their side than their opponents who have been hampered by a host of injuries.
Like Giroud, Harry Kane is set to become England’s all-time leading goalscorer. He is just one goal behind Wayne Rooney’s record 53.
Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford have both scored three goals apiece despite not being guaranteed a starting spot and Jordan Henderson made an unexpected return to the starting lineup with great results. The Liverpool captain scored in the opener against Senegal and added some much-needed balance to the team.
With two stellar attacks – and two flimsy defenses – this game has the potential to be the best of the entire tournament.
Morocco v Portugal: Saturday, December 10, 10 a.m. ET at Al Thumama Stadium
England v France: Saturday, December 10, 2 p.m. ET and Al Bayt Stadium
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