Morocco defeated Portugal 1-0 in Qatar’s World Cup 2022, becoming the first African team to progress to the semifinals of the tournament and earning a match against the winners of the France-England match later today. The Moroccan victory was well-earned.
One moment of inattention by Portuguese keeper Diogo Costa, who came out to punch a cross away and missed, allowed Youssef En-Nesyri to head down into an open net for the game’s only score in the 42nd minute. But many goal-scoring opportunities for the Portuguese simply went begging for lack of a clean finish.
The game was as expected, a simple tactical chess match between an entrenched defense playing in front of a home crowd and one of the best offensive teams at the cup who were simply unable to create today. The two-part bottom line was that the Moroccans played their game and Portugal was unable to break their packed defense down despite enjoying 74% of possession, and that Fernando Santos felt his team’s Swiss adventure would replicate against such a different opponent.
Santos can be forgiven for going with the 6-1-winning starting lineup and tactics we all wanted to see, but when it became obvious the Portuguese were being repelled before they could get within thirty yards of the Moroccan goal different tactics were needed. Few shots on goal from distance were taken by the Portuguese who also seemed unable to get any serious crosses beyond the first Moroccan defender. Yes, Joao Felix three times, Bruno Fernandes twice, and Pepe once, all had golden opportunities to score, but they either missed the frame or Moroccan keeper Yassine Bounou, who put in another stellar start, had all the answers.
It would have been nice to see Santos thinking outside the box early and coming into the second half with the five subs (or four if that was too much to ask) he eventually brought in. Similarly, Vitinha, Leao, Felix, Fernandes, Silva, and Horta are all capable dribblers but somehow that skill seems to have been devalued and thus underused in European soccer. Funny how the same skill when applied by Federico Valverde, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Hirving Lozano, Christian Pulisic, and Alphonso Davies, almost always produced something positive for their teams.
Similarly, it is interesting to note how many free kicks some teams seem to get awarded in dangerous areas that lead to goal opportunities—see Holland, Spain, Argentina, England—but when such chances were most needed Portugal could not get a single player to dribble into traffic in that final third of the Moroccan defense in search of a breakthrough or a foul. The few such free kick or corner chances that did ensue mystifyingly ended with muffed plays, like the myriad crosses that went nowhere, or the corner that found an open Bernardo Silva whiffing on a shot in the box from just left of the penalty spot, or the free kick where Fernandes head-gestured a cross and then meant to pass the ball two yards to a teammate and managed to miss him.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s record 22nd World Cup appearance was as a substitute in the 51st minute at what is very likely his last World Cup. His participation was ultimately anticlimactic but also sad as his international career seemed to come to an end with a whimper. Not only did he sit on the bench until Portugal had run out of ideas, but when he finally made it onto the pitch and had his one golden chance on goal, late in second half stoppage time, he kicked the ball right at Moroccan keeper Bounou. One would be forgiven to think that just a year ago, when he was playing regularly, that chance would have been in the back of the net.
At game’s end a Fox Network cameraman followed Ronaldo—who once again did not stay on the pitch for any post-game activity—far into the bowels of the stadium as the defeated superstar, escorted by a tournament official, openly wept every step of the way.
The World Cup of surprises continues as Portugal joins previously eliminated cup winners Brazil, Germany, Spain, and Uruguay, pre-tourney contenders Belgium, and Dark Horse hopefuls Denmark and Holland. Three previous cup winners remain, but one will be eliminated before we know who will meet Morocco, and at that point only two previous cup winners will be vying for the final and one of them needed penalties to get to the semifinals. Don’t be surprised if in the end it is Croatia facing Morocco for the trophy—it would be the only final that fits this cup’s script.
Photo: Moroccan keeper Yassine Bounou, Shutterstock ID 2151712169, by Saolab Press.