Portugal and Morocco will be one of the most exciting fixtures in the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
Morocco beat Spain in the round of 16 to qualify for the quarters for the very first time, while Portugal will be playing its first quarterfinal in 16 years.
It could be Cristiano Ronaldo’s final World Cup, and he will hope for a happy swansong.
However, after its thumping 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 where Ronaldo was on the bench, coach Fernando Santos may well stick to the same starting XI at the Al Thumama Stadium.
Before the match, here are three key battles to watch out for:
Achraf Hakimi vs Bernardo Silva
Achraf Hakimi has become one of the most exciting full-backs in the world, with a goal against Belgium (which was later disallowed) and a deciding penalty kick against Spain, which he struck effortlessly as a Panenka.
Bernardo Silva, on the other hand, has remained the constant architect for attacks, for Manchester City and Portugal, in the last couple of years.
The two previously locked horns in the Champions League last year when Man City and PSG won a match each.
But when it comes to the international stage, Bernardo got the better of Hakimi when the two last met in the FIFA World Cup four years ago.
The contest between them will see Hakimi shouldering the responsibility of trying to stop Silva and also make attacking runs along the flanks.
With Hakimi having the most tackles in the World Cup (17) so far, only time will tell if Silva can get the better of the 24-year-old.
Hakim Ziyech vs Ruben Dias
Ruben Dias did not start in Russia when the two teams last met, but the contest between the two has been an interesting one at the club level.
Ziyech – though struggling to find a regular place under current Chelsea manager Graham Potter – was a regular starter under Thomas Tuchel.
Dias, on the other hand, has honed his defensive skills under Pep Guardiola to become one of the most formidable left-footed centre-backs in the world.
Dias will be key to stopping Ziyech’s runs into the box and the long balls and aerial crosses, which the Moroccan delivers so effortlessly from outside the penalty box.
With a goal and an assist to his name, the 29-year-old has been in good touch since coming out of retirement following Walig Regragui’s appointment as head coach.
Yassine Bounou vs Goncalo Ramos
Morocco’s Yassine Bounou became the first African goalkeeper to win the Player of the Match award in the FIFA World Cup after his heroics against Spain.
He saved two crucial penalties – of Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets – as the Atlas Lions became the fourth country from Africa to qualify for the quarterfinals.
He is yet to concede a goal to an opposition player. The only goal against Morocco was an own goal.
Against him will be Portugal’s star in the making, Goncalo Ramos. The Benfica forward, replacing Cristiano Ronaldo in front, had big boots to fill against Switzerland. And he did it in style.
In his first World Cup game as a starter, he scored three goals and assisted one, establishing himself as one of the emerging stars in global football.
He became the first player to register at least four goal involvements in a single World Cup game since Oleg Salenko (6 vs. Cameroon in 1994).
If and when the two face each other in the box, it may just be an ‘unstoppable force meets an immovable object’ moment in Qatar 2022.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Romain Saiss
Ramos’ hat-trick may see him pip his more illustrious colleague into the starting XI. But if Ronaldo starts, the contest will be the ‘Battle of the Skippers’.
Saiss showed immense perseverance when he continued playing with a bandage around his thigh in the last minutes of the round of 16 match and forced the game into penalties.
On the other hand, Ronaldo – the highest international goal scorer in men’s football – maybe 37, but is a threat around the box with his off-the-ball movement.
Ronaldo’s runs along the flanks might be for Hakimi Noussair Mazaraoui to stop, but the stumbling block in the centre will be the 32-year-old veteran – a mouth-watering contest in the World Cup!