Morocco vs Portugal
Schedule for today
These really are pinch-yourself times for Morocco: A first ever spot in the quarterfinals of a World Cup — the first to take place in the Arab world, no less — and now a meeting with Portugal and its superstar striker, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Because Ronaldo has again managed to steal the spotlight in his inimitable way, even bumping Morocco’s historic run to the last eight off the top of the agenda ahead of Saturday’s narrative-laden match.
Will he start, or won’t he? That’s the big question being asked about Ronaldo after he was dropped by Portugal coach Fernando Santos for the 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 on Tuesday.
Not only was the five-time world player of the year relegated to the bench, his replacement — 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos — scored a hat trick to leave Santos with quite the selection dilemma against Morocco.
The announcement of Portugal’s team some 90 minutes before the game is keenly awaited as Ronaldo prepares to play in the quarterfinals of the World Cup for just the second time in his glittering career. Portugal is at this stage for only the third time, perhaps surprising given the talent to have come from the country down the years.
As for Morocco, the nation is in uncharted territory after becoming only the fourth African country to reach the quarterfinals at soccer’s biggest tournament, after Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). None of them reached the semifinals. Morocco is also the only team from outside Europe or South America to make it to the last eight in Qatar.
Its penalty-shootout victory over Spain in the last 16 sparked wild celebrations not just among its many fans in Qatar but at home and also in the Moroccan diaspora of around 5 million people spread mostly around Europe, which has united behind the World Cup run of the team nicknamed the “Atlas Lions.”
Morocco fans poured into the streets of European cities to celebrate the team’s passage to the quarterfinals, which came after Morocco advanced from a group containing second-ranked Belgium and 2018 runner-up Croatia.
The team is coached by Walid Regragui, who was born in France, and 14 of the 26 players in the squad were born abroad — the highest proportion for any team at a World Cup being held in the Middle East for the first time in its 92-year history.
The Arab world’s standard bearer, Morocco is in the quarterfinals on merit, too. The team has only conceded one goal — and that was an own-goal against Canada — and is proving so well-organized, with a sturdy back four headlined by Achraf Hakimi, a dedicated midfield anchorman in Sofyan Amrabat, two mercurial wingers in Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal, and a striker in Youssef En-Nesyri who occupies defenses with his relentless work rate.
Three key players might be struggling to be healthy enough to play against Portugal, though. Amrabat said he played with a back injury requiring painkilling injections in the match against Spain, during which captain Romain Saiss finished the game with his leg bandaged up after treatment and fellow center back Nayef Aguerd hobbled off in tears with an apparent thigh injury.
Portugal doesn’t appear to have such problems, with Santos’ squad depth so impressive that he could afford to leave players like Ronaldo, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Neves on the bench against Switzerland after they started every group game.
Santos said he picks his team according to the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent but it will be a surprise if he makes any changes after a match that thrust Portugal among the tournament favorites.
Even if he starts as a substitute again, Ronaldo — playing in his likely last World Cup — is expected to see some time on the field. Given the drama constantly surrounding him, he’s sure to be a talking point whatever happens.
England vs France
Kylian Mbappe, the young phenom threatening to dwarf the exploits of Pele in the World Cup, is everything that is good and bad about football.
Le Petit Prince from the banlieues of Paris plays with the freshness of youth and the skills of a streetside charmer, forever outwitting and outrunning the pursuing pack aghast at his guts.
But this is also a story of greed, costs and ethical dilemmas that are intertwined with geopolitical powerplay, energy diplomacy, state-owned clubs and hand-in-glove governments with multi-million-dollar paychecks and even more lucrative secret deals.
And in the miraculously airdropped Al Bayt Stadium in the midst of the desert gold, England will again engage with Mbappe in a game of catch-me-if-you-can. Much like the young Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, Mbappe’s tricks are many, and the agencies chasing him are almost always a step behind.
And whatever is England manager Gareth Southgate’s answer – a continuing back-four or a back-three – to the dilemma, Kylie Walker, the most mobile of his centre-backs, would be entrusted with this thankless job assigned to Tom Hank’s Carl Hanratty. Hanratty had to catch Di Caprio once, but for Walker it will at least be a 90-minute ordeal. (At 35.3km/hr, the French striker has been a kilometre faster than the English defender.)
Mbappe, already with five goals and two assists, has forged a brilliant heist partnership with left-back Theo Hernandez and midfielder Adrien Rabiot to overload the left to drag defenders all over the place. The Paris Saint-Germain attacker has been the focal point of the French attack, involved in 36 attacking sequences with 157 touches in the attacking third, twice more than next best Antoine Griezmann (102).
“England will have prepared for Kylian, but he is in a position to make the difference. He was not in top form against Poland, but he was decisive,” France manager Didier Deschamps said in his pre-match press conference. “Pace is often one of the keys to the match. When quick, the opponent has less time to be organised. You need more than just pace to score goals. You can stop a lot of things, but it’s very difficult to stop someone who is very quick, especially in transitions.”
England, which on average has employed the most advanced high line in the tournament (47.3m), might sit back further to deal with France’s fast breaks led by Mbappe.
A move to three centre-backs for extra protection against Mbappe’s explosive pace might jeopardise Southgate’s midfield balance, where Declan Rice has sat at the base, allowing the youthful exuberance of Jude Bellingham and the experienced positioning of Jordan Henderson to exert control. (Also, a poolside gig by Robbie Williams on the match eve would have, hopefully, boosted morale, though Ed Sheeran didn’t prove such a lucky mascot the last time.)
But the Mbappe-Hernandez combination on the left offers England a defensive weakness to exploit. With Jules Kounde also operating in an unfamiliar role on the right side of the French backline, England will look to create further trouble with the dribbling skills and directness of Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden. With three cross assisted goals and two from set pieces, England would continue to use the wings and test Hugo Lloris’s perceived discomfort against high balls.
As both managers employ a pragmatic and conservative approach that makes international teams look almost similar these days, who will play cat or mouse on Saturday night is still not clear.
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