Sometimes soccer is a game of moments. World Cup history is full of examples. Sometimes 99 percent of a game’s action is rendered futile and irrelevant by a special, transcendent 1 percent.
And when Cristiano Ronaldo is involved, sometimes soccer is a game of individuals. Wednesday in Moscow was one of those times.
In a Group B battle that was more evenly matched than many expected, Portugal and Morocco were separated by one simple fact: One side had Ronaldo; the other had no forward in the same stratosphere.
Ronaldo sent Portugal more than halfway to the 2018 World Cup knockout stages with a 4th-minute header that the Moroccans, despite over an hour of superiority, couldn’t match.
Cristiano Ronaldo does it again!
He heads home the corner to put Portugal up 1-0 early against Morocco. pic.twitter.com/FDoyvInvt4
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 20, 2018
It was Ronaldo’s fourth goal of the tournament, and the only one of a 1-0 Portugal victory that eliminated the Atlas Lions, and sent the Portuguese to the top of Group B.
But the 86 minutes that followed left many wondering how on earth it was the lone tally. Because Morocco, the first team to crash out of the tournament, did more than enough to deserve better.
Very few players, if any, in the history of soccer have been as good in the penalty box as 33-year-old Ronaldo is. Wednesday might have been Exhibit 1A.
Ronaldo turned his marker, Manuel Da Costa, inside-out on an early Portuguese corner. He darted toward the cross from the right, then stuck his foot in the ground and faded back toward the middle to shed Da Costa.
It looked like an embarrassing defensive breakdown. It was more so a failure to account for Ronaldo’s excellence. Morocco left Da Costa one-on-one with the Portuguese superstar. Ronaldo did what Ronaldo does against overmatched defenders. And he changed the shape of the game.
The goal didn’t alter Morocco’s plans. The North Africans were always going to try to take the game to Portugal. Over the next half-hour and beyond, they did just that.
But with a 1-0 lead, Morocco had to take the game to Portugal. There’s a difference. The Portuguese had no need to take the initiative. They could sit back and play on the counter. Both Ronaldo and Goncalo Guedes spurned chances to make it 2-0.
But for the most part, Morocco was the much better team. It pressed harder and higher than any other at the World Cup thus far. It swarmed to the ball, and more often than not won it. It played extremely physical, but not to disrupt the game; rather, because it pursued Portuguese midfielders so ferociously and aggressively.
Morocco’s biggest problem, as was the case in a 1-0 loss to Iran, was its lack of a competent striker. It dominated the game between the penalty boxes, but spent much of it unable to create any clear-cut chances from open play.
Its best opportunities were set plays and penalty appeals. Da Costa and Younes Belhanda tested Rui Patricio with headers. Numerous other attacking free kicks were wasted.
And on at least three occasions, American referee Mark Geiger swallowed his whistle. In the first half, Portugal left back Raphael Guerreiro – who was ravaged all game by Nordin Amrabat – seemingly took down Ambrabat from behind in the box. Later, center back Jose Fonte clattered into Moroccan striker Khalid Boutaib after losing an aerial duel. In the second half, Pepe miscued a clearance up into his own arm. All three potential infractions were ignored.
Morocco’s best chance finally came in the 90th minute. Hakim Ziyech, its star playmaker, weaved his way into the box, and cut onto his favored left foot eight yards from goal. His shot was goalbound, but it smacked into a Portuguese defender and looped out for a corner.
Minutes later, a snap shot from Mehdi Benatia in the penalty area sailed over the bar. And with it went Morocco’s 2018 World Cup campaign.
That campaign had started with so much promise. The Moroccans entertained us with their proactive, up-tempo style. In their first 25 minutes in Russia, against Iran last week, they looked like a proper threat to Portugal and Spain, just as some expected them to be.
But they suffered from a lack of cutting edge in the final third. In the end, they were the anti-Portugal: So impressive in so many areas that ultimately didn’t matter, unsuccessful in the few that did.
Portugal’s performance reminiscent of Euro 2016
Portugal looks exactly like the team that survived and advanced all the way to a European title two summers ago. It wasn’t particularly convincing. It never once had control of the game.
But it repressed high-quality chances, and relied on Ronaldo. The more we think about that, the more it seems like a pretty foolproof plan.
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