Morocco has much to rue today, both for having been able to squeeze a goal from dominant performance today, and for not finding this form in the ill-fated first offering against Iran. Today, we witnessed the Morocco team that justified the pre-Cup hype. This was a highly skilled bunch who brought a strutting sense of intent in today’s match against Portugal. Put simply, they played Portugal off the pitch today. Bubbling with intensity and guided by technical precision, they repeatedly nipped the ball off a befuddled Portugal, and probed and cut at the last line of defense all afternoon. The brain-capped Amrabat (#16), in particular, came through the right flank like a tornado, leaving right back Guerrero like so a mobile home roof. It was a bad of a mismatch as I have seen all cup. Ziyech, the #7, glided through midfield with the ball glued to his foot, and Portugal simply did not know how to escape from the stupor. Unfortunately, not enough creativity in the last fourth and no aerial hero to break down the Fonte-Pepe axis, though it took a brilliant Patricio save--a word phrase I’ve never uttered--to scoop out the corner-bound glanced header.
While Morocco could not get it done today, they showed the world that they more than belonged at the tournament, and will be a team to reckon with for some time to come. Coach Herve Renard has brought two different African teams to the champions stand in the African Cup of Nations, and is booked until 2022 as the national team coach. Qualifying out of Africa is no easy task--only Nigeria made it back from 2014, and perennial powers Ghana, Cameroon, Algeria, and Cote D’Ivoire are to be reckoned with, but this team has loads of talent. Interesting, Amine Harit, the Bundesliga Rookie of the Year, did not get into the game today. Fans voted him the Man of the Match in the first game, but I thought he was dreadful, giving the ball away repeatedly by over-dribbling and dripping with negative body language. Perhaps he would have given them that special edge today, but on the other hand, maybe a point had to be made by the skipper that no man is bigger than the team.
Portugal...well, any reckoning with how good Ronaldo is has to go hand in hand with how bad Portugal is. I mean, really. No one else on the team is playing at a top flight club except for Moutinho (Monaco), and he’s lost a step at 31. William Carvalho is forever rumored to move to a big club and forever passed over. Ronaldo has single-handedly carried them through the cusp of qualification in what has turned out to be a tough one. Ronaldo’s ego has always rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m convinced he never took a PK in the 2012 Euros because he was waiting for the last one, so he could pull of his shirt. His pre-free shot ritual and stance appear to be entire made for the cameras. It’s gross. But he is the best footballer of his era, Messi or no Messi. He can score more ways than anyone in the world--deadly free kicks for over a decade; an absolute predator in the air (the guile of slipping his man for the diving header, with afoot in his face today); exceptional accuracy with right or left foot; able to be a target, a runner, a creator. I’ve never liked the guy, but as polarizing of an individual as he is, he can win games by himself like no other. Messi’s a much more likable guy and a great, great player. Probably my favorite over this time period. Most people who say one is better than the other are also hugely partisan toward their choice, but I’m bucking that trend. Maybe no player in the world could have brought Portugal even with Spain and a winner today against Morocco, given the difference in those tasks. He’s going out in quite a blaze of glory, hauling one of the most boring teams I’ve seen otherwise. I’d love Messi to light it up tomorrow, but I doubt his light will match Mr. Abs and Ego’s flame in Russia.