IF there was an indication about Cristiano Ronaldo’s fixation on putting his mark on this World Cup, it came in Portugal’s warm-up ahead of their match with Morocco here at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday.
He wanted to take as many shots on goal as he possibly could, trying to find his range so that when the stakes were higher, in their second Group ‘B’ match, he didn’t miss.
He didn’t. Just four minutes in, Portugal’s number seven scored with his first chance as he arrowed in a diving header to secure a 1-0 triumph for his side and put them firmly on course for a place in the next round, while Morocco are already out of the tournament.
A point against Iran in their last group game could well be enough for Portugal to secure qualification for the knockout stage.
Ronaldo isn’t talking much at the World Cup. He’s doing his talking on the pitch. A hat-trick in the 3-3 draw against Spain saw him draw level with Ferenc Puskas as Europe’s most prolific goal-scorer in international matches and he surpassed the former Hungary and Spain striker with his 85th on Wednesday.
Even as the man-of-the-match, he didn’t take questions from the media.
“I’m very happy with the three points,” he said, responding to the moderator’s question. “We have to keep working hard to finish first in the group.”
Accepting the man-of-the-match award, he added: The record isn’t important but what’s important is that the team won.”
Morocco, having waited for 20 years to reach the World Cup, are out after just two matches. Just like this game they had dominated the proceedings in their opening loss to Iran but failed to find the killer touch.
“I’m not disappointed with the performance,” said coach Herve Renard in his press conference. “I’m proud of my players, I’m proud of this country. We played offensively and took risks. I think out fans will be proud of us.”
Two years ago, Ronaldo inspired Portugal to their maiden international title at the European Championships. The current Portugal team under Fernando Santos is designed to bring the best out of Ronaldo, the personnel and the tactics in perfect harmony to make the most of his economical but lethal movement nowadays. To find that synchrony, Santos has always lent more than an ear to Ronaldo. During matches and at stoppages, Ronaldo and Santos exchange views in hushed undertones.
Portugal and Ronaldo excel on playing on the break. They don’t press and there is no emphasis on elaborate, expansive football. The early goal gave them a chance to do exactly that. Bernardo Silva played a corner short to Joao Moutinho and Ronaldo flied in unmarked to connect with his cross. It was a bullet header that gave Monir El Kajoui no chance.
Morocco dominated the rest of the half. Noureddine Amrabat, playing the initial stages with protective headgear because of concussion, and Hakim Ziyach began attacking Portugal from the wide areas and often left Cedric and Raphael Guerreiro gasping for air with their pace and tenacity.
There were questions raised over Amrabat playing the game.
“He’s a fighter,” said Renard. “He wanted to play this game. I’m not a doctor but the medical staff gave the okay for him to play.”
Morocco almost levelled in first-half injury time but Younes Belhanda dragged a header wide. A result was needed to keep them at the World Cup and Renard’s frustration was growing by the minute. Their movement and positioning saw them get behind Portugal on several occasions but their lack of a goalscorer was painfully exposed.
“We knew we would have to suffer,” Portugal defender Jose Fonte told reporters. “There are no easy matches at the World Cup but we need to improve and do better in the next games.”
Belhanda came close to leveling early in the second half when his header had Rui Patricio diving at full stretch to send it away and captain Medhi Benatia, who kept bombing forward from his position at centre-back, also had a couple of chances.
But the hallmark of this Portuguese side is that they stifle the opposition into submission. Morocco are out of the World Cup. It was that man again, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2018