Portugal face off against Morocco at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday in Group B’s second round of games.
Portugal will be looking to build on the impressive performance which secured them a valuable point against favourites Spain in their World Cup opener. Cristiano Ronaldo once again showcased his quality and importance to the national side, scoring all three of Portugal’s goals in the 3-3 draw.
Morocco, on the other hand, suffered late heartbreak against Iran in their opening fixture of the tournament. The Lions of the Atlas were the better team for much of the game, but Aziz Bouhaddouz’s unfortunate own goal seconds from time meant they left Saint Petersburg with no points. Consequently, Hervé Renard’s side will need to beat Portugal in order to stand a chance of progressing to the next round.
Here are three clashes which could prove to be decisive:
3. Ayoub El Kaabi vs. Jose Fonte
RS Berkane forward Ayoub El Kaabi didn’t have the best of games against Iran, although the deep-lying Iranian backline neutralised his preferred style of play, which is somewhat reliant on pace.
On Wednesday, he’ll come up against Portugal’s vastly experienced centre back duo of 34-year-old Jose Fonte and 35-year-old Pepe. The Seleção das Quinas are more than likely going to play a more attacking game than Iran, with both Pepe and Fonte venturing forward for set-piece deliveries, which could leave Portugal vulnerable on the counter and allow El Kaabi the chance to exploit the backline’s lack of pace.
2. Amine Harit vs. Cédric Soares
Despite the late loss to Iran, Morocco delivered a promising display in their opening game, and Schalke midfielder Amine Harit was the catalyst to most of their good play.
Harit is likely to start on the left of a three-man midfield, meaning he’ll come up against Southampton full back Cédric Soares. The 26-year-old is a solid defender, but he’ll also be expected to provide Bernardo Silva with some support down the right flank.
If the game turns out as expected, Portugal will have most of their players, including full backs, pressing up the pitch. That could leave gaps for Morocco and Harit to exploit, especially on the counter-attack.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Medhi Benatia
Portugal aren’t necessarily a one-man team but they are heavily reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo, who isn’t immune to having an off day.
Ronaldo will start alongside either Andre Silva or Gonçalo Guedes in a two-man attack, although he’ll undoubtedly have the licence to roam around the pitch.
Juventus centre back Medhi Benatia will probably be handed one of the toughest tasks in football with marking the Portuguese superstar.
If Ronaldo is allowed to perform against Morocco like he did against Spain, his side will stand a great chance of winning.