Portugal manager Fernando Santos has warned his team about the threat Morocco will pose in Wednesday’s World Cup Group B fixture.
Morocco’s 1-0 defeat by Iran has put them under pressure to secure a positive result and revive their chances of progressing to the knockout stages.
Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain also leaves them in an uncertain position, but although they remain favourites finish in the top two alongside their neighbours, Santos recognises the danger involved in Wednesday’s meeting.
Morocco were expected to be their biggest rivals for second place, behind Spain, and the 63-year-old told FIFA’s official website: “The Morocco team is very good; one of the best African squads. They’re very good and have players who’ve been playing mostly in Europe.
“They’re very well organised, they know the game technically and tactically. They’ve always played to their full intensity on the pitch and we have to respond to that.
“Portugal’s ready. We have to do what we’ve done so far; give our best in terms of concentration, and respond to the opponents’ intensity. It’s a very important game because nothing’s been decided.
“We’ve thought about what we did (against Spain) – the good things, the less good things. We’ve tried to continue improving what we did well and rectify what we didn’t do so well, but it’s two or three days, we don’t have magic dust.
“I hope Cristiano (Ronaldo) will play a great match. We’re used to that almost, not only in the last match but his career as a whole. I hope he and our team are ready, and we’ll be able to face a strong team like Morocco. But I’ve never seen a player win a game on his own.”
Santos refused to reveal if he would make changes to his team, but he was joined at Tuesday’s press conference by Pepe, who added: “They’re strong as a whole. It’s a good team; they fight quite well, and work very well and are very well trained.
“It’s nothing new, about Cristiano Ronaldo. We had a fantastic match and it’s very important he’s so humble on the pitch to help the team and the country. We’re very happy with him and his performance.
“I hope this is going to be a good match for us. We are representing our country, and this is the most important thing right now to all of us.”
England’s wing men Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young are confident there is enough firepower in the side to share the scoring burden if Harry Kane’s hot streak ever cools down.
Trippier and Young were charged with providing the width, and the crosses, in England’s 2-1 victory over Tunisia and each provided a corner which ended with Kane converting.
With 15 goals in 25 appearances – including a record of 10 in 10 during Gareth Southgate’s managerial reign – The Tottenham forward is out on his own as the Three Lions’ danger man in Russia.
The rest of the starting XI at the Volgograd Arena boast just 12 between them, including seven from Young’s previous incarnation as an attacker.
Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli all have superior records at club level and have been backed to start chipping in soon after a handful of chances went begging in Volgograd.
“If Harry doesn’t score we’ve got players who can,” said Tripper.
“We’re one team over here and we know we’ve got quality all over the pitch. We’ve got Marcus Rashford, Raheem, Dele, Ruben (Loftus-Cheek), they’ve had fine seasons, Jesse has as well…Vards (Jamie Vardy).
“They’ve had excellent seasons for their clubs and hopefully in this tournament they can provide some for us.”
Young, fresh from his first World Cup appearance at the age of 32, was singing from the same hymn sheet.
“I think you need goals from all over the pitch and I think that’s what we’ll be looking to do,” he said.
“You want a major goalscorer, a striker that’s going to take chances, but we’ve got that in abundance around the team with Vards, Welbs (Danny Welbeck) and the kid Rashford.
“It’s not just the strikers, it’s the midfielders as well. We saw Jesse had a few chances, Raz (Sterling) had a few chances as well. There’s plenty of goals I’ve seen all over this team and I think if everyone’s chipping in and pulling in the same direction it just sets us up right for the next game.”
There is no doubt who will be carrying the nation’s hopes when they take on unfancied Panama on Sunday and it is not just fans who feel better about life when Kane is on the field.
“If things are not working he’s got a big voice in the dressing room, everyone listens to him,” said Trippier.
“He has a presence. When he’s with you, you just feed off him. He lifts you when he’s around, he just lifts you. He dedicates his life to football. He’s so professional.”
What looked like a straightforward one-two finish for Spain and Portugal in Group B was ripped wide open last Friday as the two European powerhouses shared the spoils while Iran rocked Morocco with a 95th-minute winner.
Expect Iran to pack bodies behind the ball with the knockouts now a genuine possibility but Spain, despite their Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped frustrations, looked as slick as ever in that 3-3 thriller with Diego Costa’s added snarl.
Below are some of the tactical talking points could well come to the fore in Wednesday’s clash in Kazan. Check out the key players analysis here.
ASENSIO’S AN ACE IN THE PACK
Fernando Hierro decided against unleashing Real Madrid’s prized finisher, Marco Asensio, off the bench with the game on the line on Friday.
Thiago replaced a tiring Andres Iniesta and the ever-industrious Lucas Vasquez arrived on the scene to shore up the right-hand side to see the win out … until Ronaldo happened.
However, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Hierro will need a locksmith with a penchant for the spectacular off the bench should Iran put on a defensive masterclass.
The 22-year-old is just about the fastest option available to the Spain boss outside his sub strikers and his left foot has conjured up special goals for Real, be it through tap-ins or long-range howitzers, on a regular basis.
Let’s not forget either that Atletico Madrid’s Spanish army knife Saul Niguez is also parked on that bench – while he’s not got the finest of senior goal records, just a year ago he was taking the golden boot back home from the Under-21 European Championship.
Both players were key cogs to that side that reached the final. Time for the big leagues.
IRAN SHOULD PLAY A TUN
Iran’s defensive strength was well-known to any observer of the AFC qualifiers long before the gates were shut on Morocco in St Petersburg.
Spain, of course, are an uptick in quality to any side they’ll have faced under Carlos Queiroz but there is a blueprint to follow – Tunisia’s.
The North Africans were all at sea against England on Monday, especially in the first half, but found a way to trouble Spain – albeit in a friendly – earlier this month where they lost by just one goal in Krasnodar.
Tunisia packed the midfield in a 4-5-1 formation, soaked up the pressure and burst away on the counter attack, leading to a surfeit of chances before the break.
Team Melli, as it so happens, have been moulded into a swift side on the counter under Queiroz with Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh the twooutlets with pace to burn.
While it is rather optimistic to expect that duo to pierce Spain’s covering defenders, if they can draw a few fouls or corners, players such as centre-back Morteza Pouraliganji are dangerous from set-pieces. And never count out an own goal …
GIVE INIESTA A SIESTA
Hierro is not expected to make many, if any changes to the line-up that started against Portugal though there may have been one player that woke up on Saturday morning feeling the strain more than most.
Andres Iniesta started 46 games for club and country last season – a 16-game increase on 2016/17 – with Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde keen to give the Nou Camp as many last glimpses as possible after it became clear he was to leave for the Far East.
Spain certainly do not have the luxury of playing too cute with their starting XI after their opening draw but they have a player in Saul who can give La Roja some width, or the metronomic Thiago in reserve.
Given that Morocco should be the sterner challenge, and there’ll surely be knockout games to come, preserving Iniesta should be a consideration.