Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Hervé Renard’s Morocco look fated to become the best side to ever exit a World Cup on zero points. Eye-catching in the middle-third, constructing fluent passing maneuvers galore, the Atlas Lions have ultimately paid dearly for the lack of a half-decent number-nine.
Renard has trialed three strikers throughout Morocco’s two group-stage games: Ayoub El Kaabi, Iran’s own-goal hero Aziz Bouhaddouz, and Khalid Boutaib. Boutaib got the nod here, but the towering 31-year-old disappointingly failed to pose a significant penalty-box presence.
Cristiano Ronaldo, infinitely more talented than all three put together, showed Renard what he was missing; finishing an early short-corner with a typical bullet-header. For the second successive game, a set-piece had proven Morocco’s undoing. Iran, remember, created six shot attempts from dead-balls on Friday, not including Bouhaddouz’s inadvertent winner.
Portugal’s early dominance proved chimeric, however, as Renard’s side went about penning in the Selecao for the game’s remainder. And, although Morocco focused most of their attacks down the left, where Ajax playmaker Hakim Ziyech dictated, it was in tormenting Raphael Guerreiro that the Africans found most joy.
Wracked with injury problems at Dortmund this season, Guerreiro looked completely bamboozled by the direct running of Nordin Amrabat. A surprise inclusion here, notwithstanding a suspected concussion suffered against Iran, the Watford winger joined the returning Nabil Dirar in overloading Portugal’s star full-back.
With Joao Mario, a centrally-minded midfielder by nature, offering little protection, both Amrabat and Dirar reached the byline for fun in the opening quarter. Only Morocco’s failure to load the penalty-area spared the Selecao‘s bacon. Renard’s tidy triangle of midfield passers only rarely provided the necessary late runs. Boutaib, meanwhile, was simply invisible.
Still, Amrabat’s impressive right-wing impact did play a part in forcing Fernando Santos’ tactical hand. Having kept faith with the 4-4-2 that counterattacked Spain into near-submission last week, the Portuguese manager wasted little time in abandoning it entirely. Midway through the first-half, Santos moved Joao Mario inside to the 10, and Goncalo Guedes out left, in a 4-2-3-1.
The reasons for this switch, presumably, were twofold: firstly, an additional midfielder would help Portugal play through the thirds, circumventing Morocco’s super-effective press; and, secondly, the presence of Guedes on the left-touchline would, hopefully, curb Dirar’s regular forays from right-back.
But only the second goal was achieved, Morocco failing to get in-behind Guerreiro from minutes 19 to 44. It was in this period, too, that Guedes should have finished the Atlas Lions off.
Renard’s 4-2-3-1 system often becomes a 4-3-3 in attack, isolating ex-Aston Villa holding midfielder Karim El Ahmadi. Ronaldo, naturally, sensed that space, dropping off to find his erstwhile strike partner running off Dirar. Alas, as against Spain last week, Guedes fluffed his lines.
The first goal of Santos’ switch, however, was unequivocally not reached. With Joao Mario remaining a peripheral figure until his 70th-minute withdrawal, Renard’s disciplined side continued to smother Portugal’s attempts to work the ball forward.
The Atlas Lions, therefore, remained dominant; as did Amrabat, who continued to make mincemeat of Guerreiro in one-on-one combat. Morocco duly won a plethora of right-flank set-pieces, delivered impeccably by Ziyech into the mixer.
The Ajax craftsman’s perfectly-flighted dead-balls offered his strikerless side their best chance of parity. But, unfortunately for Morocco’s long-suffering support, his teammates Younes Belhanda and Mehdi Benatia wasted two good chances apiece from that very avenue.
Renard desperately introduced more attacking midfield flair into the mix, in the forms of Mehdi Carcela and Faycal Fajr. But Santos’ 70th minute switch to 4-1-4-1, swapping Joao Mario for Bruno Fernandes, saw that off. What Renard really needed was a finisher of some repute. Santos, on the other hand, already has the world’s best. That, ultimately, was the difference.
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