Andre Silva could be perfect foil for Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo as Portugal face Morocco

Alex Rea 19/06/2018
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Portugal head into their second Group B clash riding the crest of a wave after a stunning 3-3 draw with Spain.

In contrast, Morocco, their opponents on Wednesday, will attempt to arise from the slump of a confidence-sapping 1-0 defeat to Iran.

The Atlas Lions didn’t face a single shot in the second half, a testament to their stoicism, but substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz turned a header into his own net deep into injury time to break Morocco’s resistance and their hearts.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the headline act of the first round of fixtures as he took centre-stage with a majestic 88th-minute free-kick sealing a hat-trick and a point against La Roja.

Now, Portugal will aim to place one foot in the knockouts with victory at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the key questions.

BENATIA REDEMPTION OR WILL RONALDO RULE AGAIN?

Real Madrid v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg

Morocco captain and lead defender Medhi Benatia must be sick of the sight of Ronaldo.

The 31-year-old was on the bench as the Portuguese powerhouse ripped apart Juventus in the 2016/17 Champions League final and then in the quarter-final of last season’s edition, Benatia gave away the crucial 96th-minute penalty which Ronaldo dispatched to send Real Madrid through.

But the beating heart and soul of the Lions will seek redemption with more than pride on the line because a successful revenge mission will launch Herve Renard’s side back into last-16 contention.

He can draw on inspiration from Morocco’s last encounter with Portugal at Mexico 1986 when a 3-1 victory saw them top the group and become the first African nation to qualify for the knockouts.

Imperious against Iran, Benatia won five aerials, made three clearances, blocked one shot, made 103 touches while his 92 passes found 82 per cent of their targets. He was largely at ease until the unfortunate late own goal.

The French-born Bianconeri centre-back must mirror the strength of that performance to strangle the influence of a Ronaldo with his chest out.

The 33-year-old was at his rampaging best against Spain, the one-man equaliser dragging his nation back into the game at every turn.

He arrived to Russia in peak physical condition, a testament to his developing fitness through the season and is a picture of focus as he aims to carry Portugal through another major tournament.

Many try to fight the Portugal=Ronaldo narrative but it’s difficult to ignore. Benatia is certainly one player who will only have Ronaldo in his thoughts, though.

ZIYECH’S CHANCE TO SHINE?

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Morocco were tipped as one of the strongest African outfits at this World Cup with defensive rigidity hallmarking their impressive qualification campaign.

It was hoped the substance would be matched by the stylish creative output of Ajax star Hakim Ziyech – the leading assist-maker (15) in the Eredivisie last season – with the winger adding a diamond sheen to their rocky core.

But his performance against Iran was peculiar. Renard’s tactic it seemed was to use Ziyech and his twin initiator Younes Belhanda as first receivers from the back and it resulted in either a tight slalom through a congested midfield or wayward long diagonal balls into pockets of space behind the full-backs.

There was no deviation from the plan and Morocco were bereft of ideas and ingenuity, Ziyech a frustrated figure whenever he did search for a quick interchange further up the pitch with quality around him lacking.

Renard’s men are far better suited as a catch-and-counter side rather than as the initial trigger with the speed and trickery of Ziyech tailor-made for open pitch on the break.

Stationed deep and infield is not where you see the best of the 25-year-old so the Portugal fixture could actually be to his benefit.

The European champions will be expected to take the initiative and bring the game to Morocco and Ziyech should have far more joy cutting inside from the right into the space between enterprising full-back Raphael Guerreiro and the flat-footed centre-back Jose Fonte.

GUEDES OR SILVA TO PARTNER SKIPPER?

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The big selection dilemma for Portugal boss Fernando Santos is whether to drop the disappointing Goncalo Guedes for Andre Silva in the support slot for Ronaldo.

A precocious talent, Guedes was outstanding on loan with Valencia last season but his inexperience emerged in the Spain draw.

Hesitation reigned over his usual clarity of thought as the 21-year-old cost Portugal two glaring openings and AC Milan forward Silva is expected to be brought back into the starting XI.

The 22-year-old is a more natural fit up top – Guedes ordinarily operates in a wider berth – and has proven to be a model foil to Ronaldo.

“When Cristiano Ronaldo needs me to do something I’m always there and when I need him to do it he is always there,” Silva explained in the pre-match build-up.

“When Cristiano is further forward I can defend, I occupy the spaces that I need to and when the two of us are up front, we can open up spaces for each other with our movement”.

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Robbie Fowler would be 'amazed' if Liverpool and Egypt star Mohamed Salah was fit to take on Russia

Alex Broun 19/06/2018
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Liverpool and England legend Robbie Fowler.

Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler believes Mohamed Salah’s injury is worse than he is letting on and he would be “amazed” if the Egyptian star was fit to take on Russia this evening in St Petersburg at 22:00 (UAE Tme).

“In all honesty, anyone who has had a shoulder injury in football will tell you – it’s a tough injury to get hold of,” said Fowler at Abu Dhabi Golf Club World Cup Fan Zone on Monday.

“I was actually amazed that he made it to the (Egypt) squad for the World Cup.”

Fowler said Salah would be desperate to take his place for the Pharaohs in the do or die clash.

“He’s the type of player who doesn’t want to miss out and he’s got a lot to give,” said the former England striker.

“But I don’t know, the fact that he never played the other day (against Uruguay) tells you he’d be a lot sorer than a lot of us envisaged.

“All the talk is he’s going to be ready for the next game (today), but if he’s ready for the next game he should have been ready for the game just gone.”

However Fowler is still optimistic about Egypt’s chances in the World Cup, even without Salah, and says it’s unfair to label them as a one-man team.

“I think you’re being a bit unfair,” he said. “I know they lost the game but it could have gone either way. I thought they were a little bit unlucky Egypt to be fair (against Uruguay).

“They qualified and obviously Mo Salah is the main talisman, he’s one of those players who can get goals out of anywhere. But it’s like any team you look at – Argentina with (Lionel) Messi, you’re obviously relying on other players to come into the fold.

“You look at even Brazil – there’s a lot of pressure on the likes of (Philippe) Coutinho, there’s Neymar to come in – but you always need the player to deliver.

“So instead of like Egypt, putting all the pressure on Mo Salah to get fit and to do well and to score goals, it should never be about that.

“He never qualified on his own. As much as he scored the winning goals, it takes a little bit more than just the one man.”

The 43-year-old believes that a fully fit Salah would have a massive impact on the tournament.

“If Mo Salah was to come into this game – fully fit Mo Salah – then it would have been brilliant watching him,” he said, “and I actually believe he could’ve been the man to get them (Egypt) out of that group.

“As it turns out Russia had a great result against Saudi (a 5-0 victory) but there’s still a lot to play for, that’s why he’s maybe going to play the next game.”

Quizzed about the how Salah suffered the injury in the Champions League final, Fowler said although Sergio Ramos “knew what he was doing” he did not believe the Real Madrid defender set out to intentionally hurt the Egyptian.

“I thought Ramos as a player knew what he was doing,” said Fowler, “I’m not saying he knew what he was doing in getting him really really injured.

“He (Ramos)… wanted to stop him (Salah) from doing what he does and maybe pull him down.

“But of course, I think everyone who has played the game will tell you – yeah he’s meant to bring him down – but I don’t think he’s meant to hurt him to the capacity (extent) that he has.

“That’s just him trying to get one of the star players from Liverpool… just maybe try to get them to be quiet.

“It happens all the time in football – I wouldn’t put too much blame on him. I mean Ramos’ done it but players do it all the time. It’s just trying to get an onus on a centre forward.

“But I don’t think he’s meant to hurt him to the way he has hurt him.”

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Harry Kane and England deserved the win against Tunisia, Alan Shearer admits

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Harry Kane celebrates his second goal with Ashley Young

Alan Shearer lauded Harry Kane for scoring his first goals in a major tournament after his brace helped England get their World Cup off to a winning start against Tunisia.

Shearer, who scored when England beat Tunisia 2-0 in the 1998 World Cup, knows just how important it is for a striker to get off the mark so early in a tournament.

Kane opened the scoring in the 11th minute which a poacher’s finish before securing the win with a back post header to claim all three points for England.

Shearer believed Kane would have been desperate to get involved in the tournament after watching a number of the game’s biggest stars get amongst the goals.

“I can’t stress enough the importance (of those goals),” Shearer said on BBC1’s World Cup Match of the Day.

“He’d have sat for the last week watching Ronaldo, Griezmann and Pogba scoring goals knowing we would be talking about him and tournament football.

“The manager gave him the captain’s armband for one reason, he’s the go-to player when someone has to make a difference.

“It will give him huge confidence to get off the mark with your first goal, bring the games on.

“That’s why Gareth Southgate named him captain. When the manager is looking for someone to do something, you want the captain to do something.

“They kept going and nobody can say they didn’t deserve the win.

“It would have been so difficult for them if they didn’t get the win.”

The win put England level on three points with Belgium who beat Panama 3-0 earlier in the day.

Having named his squad early, there was pressure on manager Southgate to get off to a winning start.

And Shearer felt the performance will give Southgate and his players confidence going forward.

“It’s a great night for Gareth,” Shearer said.

“He was under huge pressure and he will look at his own performance.

“He named his squad very early and the players knew the system, now could they go about getting the result?

“We wanted England to give us a bit of hope and a performance that had energy and chances so there are plenty of positives.”

Frank Lampard was relieved to see England get off to a winning start, but wished the margin had been greater.

“Only for the chances we missed in the first half, we would have won this game before half-time,” Lampard said.

“The first game is the one to win and I fully expect us to beat Panama. 

“The crucial thing is taking the chances in this tournament.

“When you win you can put them (missed chances) to bed.

“The performance overrides that and maybe we’ll be more settled in the next game.”

Rio Ferdinand singled out Harry Maguire for his assured performance at both ends of the pitch.

“(Harry) showed personality. He made a few mistakes but he came through that,” Ferdinand said.

“That’s why he’s in the team and Gary Cahill isn’t.

“It’s about players who have the ability to bring the ball out, drag players towards them and play behind them.

“He released himself to get into attacking places.”

Gary Neville: part of the problem at the last eight tournaments

Gary Neville: part of the problem at eight of the last nine tournaments

Gary Neville believes beating Tunisia allows England to be more relaxed going into their second game with Panama.

Neville said on ITV Sport: “With five minutes to go I was worried thinking deja vu, thinking getting on that plane tonight those young players with only two who have started in a World Cup, waking up in the morning to what wouldn’t have been negative media, but an anxiety and nervousness.

“Thinking about the post-match video, thinking about the fact they have to play against Panama in a game they must win. And then the pressure builds.”

Neville admits the England squads in the past where he has been a player and a coach, have not been able to be trusted in major tournaments.

He said: “You cannot trust us. We’ve let ourselves down and I’ve been part of the problem in eight of the last nine tournaments. You cannot trust us to recover from a bad result in the opening game. It’s happened too many times.”

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