KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW: Cristiano Ronaldo became European football’s all-time record marksman by heading the single goal which provided Portugal with the 1-0 win which eliminated Morocco from the 2018 World Cup finals in Luzhniki.
Ronaldo began the Group B tie where he had left off last time against Spain in Portugal’s opening match by setting his name on the scoresheet after only four minutes. Ultimately it proved sufficient against Atlas Lions who had a roar but no bite.
The sixth match by an African team at these finals thus ended in a fifth defeat.
Morocco dominated almost all the match but followed up their opening defeat by Iran with another failure and were condemned to fly home after the first round even before their concluding group match against Spain.
Ronaldo’s goal came after Portugal’s European champions forced a short corner on the right. Bernardo Silva pushed it back for Joao Moutinho to cross to the edge of the six-yard box where the World Player of the Year dived bravely between the flying studs to head home.
Years and games
This was Ronaldo’s 85th goal for his country and a European record beyond the 84 recorded by the Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas. The difference was that Puskas scored his goals in 85 games in 11 years while Ronaldo’s took him 152 in 15.
Four more minutes and Ronaldo might have had a second after a beautiful, sleight-of-foot turn to create space for an angled effort which skidded just wide of Monir Al Kajoui’s right-hand post.
Morocco, at last, woke up and began to put together a series of high-pace attacking moves.
Captain Mehdi Benatia had a header to a corner from Hakim Ziyach well saved by Wolves’ new goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, while Noureddine Amrabat proved a particular problem for Portugal. His right-wing pace created an entertaining halfhour’s personal duel with Raphael Guerrero.
As half-time approached so the Moroccan whirlwind began to blow itself out and Portugal might have extended their lead. Ronaldo chipped a delicate ball over the defence and Gonzalo Guedes, stepping clear, should have done better than allow keeper Al Kajoui to reach out a deflective hand.
Portugal began the second half as they begun the first, by creating a couple of chances. But once Jose Fonte had headed wide and Ronaldo had shot high over the bar it was all Morocco.
Surprisingly, however, coach Herve Renard switched Amrabat to the left wing where he was never as effective as in the first half. For all their possession and increasingly urgency, they lacked penetration.
Rui Patricio made two excellent saves from Younes Belhanda, once to an angled drive and once to a close-range header while Benatia and Hakim Ziyach both shot over the bar.
Yet Portugal never panicked, they never thumped the ball wildly out of defence, they always tried to play their way out of trouble. For much of the time Morocco hustled their way back into possession but Fonte and Pepe, his partner in resistance, held firm.
Portugal thus gained revenge for the World Cup elimination Morocco had inflicted on them the last time they met — in Mexico in 1986 when Ronaldo was a mere 16 months old.