Man City's Bernardo Silva and Schalke's Amine Harit could have key role in Portugal v Morocco clash

Alex Rea 20/06/2018
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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 key comparisons.

PEPE V MEDHI BENATIA

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Pepe isn’t fooling anyone with his boyband disguise, he’s still a villainous pest of a defender.

At 35 years old and now plying his trade in Turkey with Besiktas after ending his prosperous union with Real Madrid last summer, the Portugal hardman is now in the declining stage of his career.

Indeed, Santos possesses a grizzled backline with the decaying qualities of Pepe and his centre-back partner Jose Fonte (34) cause for concern.

The pair combine for a startling age of 69 and that Pepe is still Fernando Santos’ lead defender is utterly frightening.

He was bullied and battered by Diego Costa in the tournament opener and although Morocco frontman Khalid Boutaib is unlikely to provide a similar threat, the runners in behind could unsettle and frustrate the short-fused Pepe.

No Morocco player touched the ball more (103) than Benatia during their defeat to Iran, a pointer to the responsibility he carries for his nation.

The Juventus defender was one of the better performers in their tournament opener, especially considering Romain Saiss alongside him looked very anxious when in possession, Benatia called upon on a couple of occasions to mop up.

The captain will have the toughest one v one in this clash with Cristiano Ronaldo sure to be in the mood for a tear up.

Benatia has though returned to the form which saw him emerge as one Serie A’s finest defenders during his time with Roma.

He stepped up and filled the gaping hole left by Leonardo Bonucci’s exit to AC Milan last summer and thrived alongside Giorgio Chiellini.

That experience will and his previous encounters with Ronaldo at club level will be pivotal.

BERNARDO SILVA V AMINE HARIT

20 06 2018 key battles silva v amine

From an attacking sense, Schalke’s Harit stood out – for good and bad – against Iran.

A frustrating talent, the 21-year-old was at home in the attacking third, darting in between the lines with electric feet and intelligent in-and-out movement.

But his end product was poor. From a joint-game high of three shots, he found the target only once and the opportunities, while not exactly clear cut, could have yielded far better results.

On the half turn, he’s extremely well-balanced and it’s noticeable how well he retains the ball tight to his feet on the run. However, Harit is still raw and though refining his talent at a World Cup may be a positive for the future, for the present, Morocco need him to mature quickly.

Bernardo Silva struggled to make an impression against Spain, albeit playing a very skill-rich side, and Fernando Santos will require more from the midfielder.

In and out of the team under Pep Guardiola in his debut season for Manchester City after moving from Monaco, the 23-year-old didn’t convey the confident characteristics he exhibited when brought into the fold last season against La Roja.

He’s been capped with Portugal since 2015, so is far from a new face in the squad, but Cristiano Ronaldo cannot be expected to carry his country alone.

While the starting XI is deployed in a 4-4-2, Bruno Fernandes on the opposite wing and Bernardo take turns to join the front two to transition attacks into a fluid 4-3-3.

Coming in off his wing, Bernardo must offer more than his zero shots, zero key passes and just 35 touches during his 68-minute display against Spain.

WILLIAM CARVALHO V MBARK BOUSSOUFA

20 06 2018 key battles carvalho v mbark

Morocco’s marauding midfielder Boussoufa didn’t really get the opportunity to showcase his ability against Iran with the Atlas Lions curiously pinging long and inaccurate switch balls into the channels.

But for a long time the 33-year-old has been one of the standout talents in this Morocco side and perhaps an enticing middle-ground contest with the equally impressive Carvalho will bring the best out of him.

Boussoufa is a gifted two-way player, capable of sparking attacks with his incisive passing while also blanketing danger with well-timed tackles and interceptions.

He occupies a deeper quarter-back role for Renard’s side, screening a rigid back four but if they are to gain any sort of foothold in this fixture, they will need their Dutch-born veteran to dictate tempo with an improved passing success rate from what we saw in their tournament opener.

While Ronaldo stole all the headlines for his heroism against Spain, in behind Carvalho was quietly enjoying a very solid performance.

The youthful exuberance in attack is countered by a worryingly weathered backline and so the 26-year-old has arguably the most important role in the team as he transitions play from the out of defence while also dropping in when they don’t have possession to protect an aging centre-back partnership.

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Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo may have to be patient as Portugal face Morocco

Alex Rea 20/06/2018
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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 key tactics for both sides.

PATIENCE CAN BE A VIRTUE

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Portugal will have to approach this fixture with a different mindset to their impressive hold of Spain.

In that clash, Santos’ men countered with searing speed out of the back as virtually every Spanish player camped inside their half.

When Portugal ransacked La Roja, Cristiano Ronaldo and Goncalo Guedes advanced up the pitch and held on to the ball superbly with only the poor decision-making of the latter denying them clear daylight.

Against Morocco, however, they will be expected to get on the front foot and break down what is a compact and narrow challenger.

The North Africans are far more comfortable jousting on the backfoot and slinging up the other end with their pacey playmakers than they are taking the initiative as they struggled to do against Iran.

The pressure and expectancy is on Portugal and they may have to bide their time before fashioning clear openings. Ronaldo has a tendency to get frustrated when things aren’t going his way and ensuring he retains his cool to plunder when they appear is paramount.

RETURN OF NABIL DIRAR 

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The sight of experienced right-back Nabil Dirar finally returning to full training last week delighted the fervent Morocco fans but Renard faces a dilemma in whether or not to reinstate the 32-year-old.

He missed both warm-up games for Russia with a calf injury and Nordin Amrabat uncomfortably took his place.

The Watford winger is a massive doubt having been wiped out in the second half of the opener with Iran and later coming off with concussion.

However, Dirar was expected to miss the entire tournament and it remains to be seen as to whether the Fenerbahce defender is anywhere near close to 100 per cent fit.

With Bruno Fernandes on the left of Portugal’s midfield and a roaming Ronaldo often drifting out to the wing, it could present a big problem for Morocco if he isn’t at the races.

PORTUGAL PICK UP OFF RONALDO

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It’s difficult to avoid the one-man team narrative with the European champions given yet another absurd performance from Ronaldo, but these are the types of fixtures his teammates simply have to stand up and make their mark.

Guedes failed to take the chances presented to him against Spain, while fellow attackers Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva were uncharacteristically quiet.

Boss Santos is growing increasingly frustrated with questioning on Portugal’s heavy reliance on their talisman but he needs big performances from the undoubted quality complimenting their fierce forward.

“Football is not an individual sport, it is a team sport. It is not just about Cristiano Ronaldo,” Santos said this week.

“We are a team who wants to do well, not a sum of individuals who want to beat records.”

With Ronaldo sure to occupy plenty of attention from the Morocco defenders, there will to be pockets of space in behind and whether it be Guedes or Silva in alongside him, or the two wide men, those gaps must be exploited.

There are even options from the bench to profit with Ricardo Quaresma capable of an impact. Ronaldo does not have to do the job alone, but it requires his teammates to show they’re worthy of alleviating some responsibility off the 33-year-old’s shoulders.

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Carvajal is in line to displace Nacho and other talking points ahead of Spain v Iran

Andy West 20/06/2018
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After opening their World Cup campaign with a dramatic 3-3 draw against Portugal which was encouraging and frustrating in equal measure, Spain are looking to secure their first victory against an Iran team which is the surprise early group leader.

Here are the three main talking points ahead of Wednesday night’s showdown in Kazan.

Carvajal to displace Nacho

If Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t intervened with a sensational and already iconic free-kick to give Portugal a point in the opener, Spain’s match-winning hero would have been the unlikely figure of utility man Nacho Fernandez.

The Real Madrid defender was only playing because his club-mate and first-choice right-back Dani Carvajal was injured, but he came close to writing himself into World Cup history by thrashing home a spectacular half-volley from the edge of the box to give Spain a 3-2 lead.

In the end Ronaldo’s heroics ensured that Nacho’s strike will go down as one of the tournament’s great forgotten goals, but it also gave fresh life to the question of whether Carvajal will slot straight back into the starting line-up.

In truth, Carvajal should still play if – as expected – he is now fully recovered from the thigh injury sustained in the Champions League Final: he is a much better all-round presence than Nacho, who should not be handed a prolonged place in the team thanks to an isolated spectacular moment – especially as he was also culpable for Portugal’s opener after conceding a penalty with a needless foul on Ronaldo.

But if there’s any lingering doubt over Carvajal’s fitness, boss Fernando Hierro will surely take no risks and Nacho will stay in.

Will Dave save?

The suggestion that David de Gea is close to being dropped from Spain’s starting line-up might appear ridiculous to anyone who has watched the keeper’s consistently outstanding performances for Manchester United over the past few years.

But the shot-stopper has failed to live up to his ‘Dave Saves’ mantle by committing a series of shocking blunders for Spain in recent weeks, including a dreadful error to gift Ronaldo his second goal of the game in Friday’s opener.

Following similar mistakes in friendly meetings with Switzerland and Argentina, de Gea has now made major mistakes in three of his last four international outings, leading some fans to outlandishly claim that 37 year-old former captain Iker Casillas should still be number one.

Emergency boss Hierro has forcefully stated his unwavering support for the struggling keeper and, for now, de Gea’s place in the team is safe – partly due to a lack of serious alternatives as the squad’s other two goalkeepers are Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has only won one cap to date, and 35 year-old Pepe Reina, who has only made one competitive appearance for his country in four years.

So de Gea will start, but he absolutely cannot afford another howler if he wants to prevent the calls for his benching from growing louder and ever more insistent.

Can Iran’s defence hold firm?

Spain are overwhelming favourites to take all three points from the game, but Iran’s defensive record could ensure their task in Kazan is far more complicated than the bookmakers are suggesting.

The team coached by former Real Madrid and Portugal boss Carlos Queiroz are proudly sitting at the top of the group after kicking off with a last-gasp 1-0 victory over Morocco, and watching them keep a clean sheet was no surprise after a qualification campaign which saw them concede just five goals in 18 games.

That included a pair of clean sheets against South Korea in a remarkable run without allowing a single goal over the course of 12 games and 21 months.

Queiroz’s men were similarly obdurate in their last World Cup outing, coming within seconds of claiming a famous point against Argentina four years ago before Lionel Messi conjured a brilliant late winner. This time, they’ll be determined to go one better.

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