The World Cup trophy is becoming closer to view as the field becomes smaller, and on Saturday at Al Thumama Stadium, trailblazers Morocco will take on quarterfinal adversaries Portugal.
The Atlas Lions, who are now competing for a spot in the last four, defeated Spain before convincingly winning on penalties to advance to this round for the first time, while the Selecao completely changed their game to defeat Switzerland in the round of 16.
Achraf Hakimi put the finest of finishing touches on Morocco’s defensive masterclass on Tuesday, ensuring hero status for all time. His “Panenka” penalty took the North African country through to the quarterfinals while handing Spain a 3-0 shootout loss.
In order to grind out a scoreless draw and set up a thrilling finish, Walid Regragui’s team had to fight valiantly against the Spanish “death by a thousand passes” strategy. In doing so, they had to sacrifice the majority of their possession. Yassine Bounou, the goalkeeper, joined Hakimi as an everlasting legend in Rabat, Marrakech, and beyond.
In a crowded Education City Stadium, which was primarily filled with Moroccan fans whose fervour has proven to be such a big aspect of these championships, becoming only the fourth African side to reach the last eight at a World Cup – and the first in 12 years – drove the crowd crazy.
Regragui’s team has made history for both their country and the Arab region. The Atlas Lions’ only other trip in the round of 16 was back in 1986. In the process, they maintained a stunning sixth clean sheet in their past seven games, extending their World Cup undefeated streak to five games.
Morocco vs. Portugal
With the talent and dedication of Hakimi, fellow fullback Noussair Mazraoui, their centre backs, and tireless midfield mainstay Sofyan Amrabat, a Morocco team made up in part of expatriates has grown into one of the toughest defensive groups in all of international football.
Fighting off members of the European elite like Croatia and Belgium earlier in the campaign also helped them finish first in Group F, so facing Portugal shouldn’t be a concern for the quarterfinal underdogs.
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This week, the Selecao easily defeated Switzerland and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Qatar 2022 World Cup as Fernando Santos was rewarded for establishing his authority by benching Portugal’s legendary captain. This victory may have been Santos’ greatest since winning the 2016 European Championship.
Losing ageing superstar Cristiano Ronaldo allowed for a far more flexible and dynamic assault, and his successor, Benfica prodigy Goncalo Ramos, was all than capable of taking over as the new king.
The 21-year-old scored an unstoppable opening goal and then went on to score a fairytale hat-trick in Portugal’s 6-1 triumph. It was his first senior start and the first triple of the competition.
Rafael Leao, a winger for Milan, scored the final goal in his team’s rout of the Swiss to dispel any remaining concerns about Portuguese football’s future by making the entire world sit up and take attention.
Santos’ team managed safe passage through the World Cup’s opening round as Group H champions, and with three victories and 12 goals already, they may well hope they can now take the title for the very first time. This is despite a late slip-up against South Korea when they had already qualified.
Portugal, who were Eusebio-inspired semi-finalists in 1966, has more recently defied the expectations of its relatively small population by winning both the Euros and the Nations League. The Iberians have never reached a senior global final despite their success at the young level as well, but Saturday’s match with Morocco offers a chance to get closer to the biggest prize in the game of beauty.