2022 World Cup | Three key matchups during Morocco vs Portugal

An unexpected yet intriguing clash is set for the quarterfinals as Walid Regragui and Fernando Santos lock horns on the tactics board in a bid to progress deeper into the knockout stage

Portugal has busted through to the quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup in stunning fashion after a 6-1 demolition job of Switzerland, but not through the man that many would have expected after SL Benfica starlet Gonçalo Ramos announced himself to the world with a stunning hat-trick in his first tournament start.

Having last reached this stage of a World Cup tournament back in 2006, the wealth of talent in A Seleçao’s squad under Fernando Santos looks to stake its claim as the real golden generation of the heralded Iberian nation but will be made first contend with an unexpected adversary on Saturday night before booking a place in the semi-finals.

As the only African side left in Qatar, Morocco has arguably been the story of the entire tournament after first topping Group F comprised of Belgium and Croatia before going on to defeat Spain in the round of 16 on penalties while allowing just one goal in four fixtures along the way. What Walid Regragui has achieved this winter is nothing short of a phenomenal advert for football’s progression on the continent and Ousud Al-atlas would be underestimated at anyone’s peril at this stage.

Having clashed at the World Cup on two previous occasions in 2018 and 1986, the head-to-head is currently split down the middle with Morocco boasting the greater goal difference on the back of their 3-1 win in Mexico while a 4th-minute goal by Cristiano Ronaldo sealed all three points during a 1-0 win in Russia four years ago.

How do these two stack up against each other? Here are three key matchups as Morocco and Portugal prepare to face off at Al Thumama Stadium. three days from now.

Regragui vs Santos

Despite the myriad of player matchups that will catch attention at Al Thumama Stadium on Saturday night, perhaps the biggest matchup of the tie comes by way of the technical area when Walid Regragui and Fernando Santos come to grips with one another on the tactics board.

For Regragui the solution is probably far more simple in terms of what he may rely on regards to tasking his XI on the night. Little needs to change for Morocco at the time of writing, with the Atlas Lions boasting the tournament’s best defense and having come out favorably against three European nations ranked twelfth or higher according to FIFA before the World Cup began. His biggest task will, instead, come down to ensuring that his players keep faith in what has worked on the pitch while also working to keep morale high after Portugal’s result against Switzerland and guaranteeing that they do not take the pitch against Santos’ men worried of being overrun.

As for Santos, it must come down to not making any unnecessary changes, including returning Ronaldo to his place in the matchday XI. The reality is that their result against the Swiss was the best performance they put on all tournament while arguably the top performance produced by any side this winter. With that in mind, Gonçalo Ramos, Raphaël Guerreiro, and Diogo Dalot all need to keep their places in the team; Ramos specifically. Age notwithstanding, a hat trick at the World Cup speaks for itself, but the increased fluidity that Portugal’s attack enjoyed with him leading the line over Ronaldo is quite possibly the shot in the arm they needed. Santos will do well to honor that.

Félix vs Hakimi

Though so much of the recent talk around Portugal will come down to the aforementioned 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos, Atlético Madrid starlet João Félix has had a very effective tournament in his own right in Qatar operating on the left side of Santos’ front three. An excellent technician and creative when on the ball while also being a goal threat during the run of play, Félix will come into direct contact with Moroccan star Achraf Hakimi in what is certainly one of the match-ups of the tie.

With the Paris Saint-Germain right-back often enjoying the fruits of being able to bomb forward and join the attack, how he handles Félix’s intelligence when it comes to understanding space in the middle and final thirds will be decisive. If Hakimi is caught out at any juncture, Félix is more than good enough to capitalize on the opportunity, but if Hakimi’s pace and undervalued physical attributes win the day and keep the Portuguese quiet, Morocco could be in line for another shock result.

Amrabat vs Fernandes

Manchester United star creator-in-chief Bruno Fernandes has turned up the volume on his performances for Portugal this winter and probably should be viewed as his nation’s best player throughout the tournament on the back of two goals and three assists across just three appearances in Qatar, but Fernandes looked an even better version of himself against Switzerland without Cristiano Ronaldo leading the line.

Whether it was his own bias not bubbling to the surface, or the freedom of movement he enjoyed in conjunction with that of the aforementioned Félix and Ramos, Fernandes has been a hit in Qatar and a key catalyst why they have a chance to reach the semi-finals. There is no telling if Santos will deploy him on the right flank or in the 10 hole, but should he be more centrally, the Red Devils star will come up against Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat; a player who has quietly been one of the top performing central players in the tournament.

Having already managed to deal with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Gavi, Pedri, and Luka Modrić, Amrabat’s patrolling of the lines between midfield and the back four has proven vital for Morocco, and he will no doubt be tasked with shadowing Fernandes on the night when he occupies the center channel. Much like the Félix-Hakimi clash, cutting off the supply lines for Portugal will be vital in making sure Ramos is not supported further forward. If Fernandes is allowed carte blanche, it could be a tough night for Regragui’s outfit.

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Andrew Thompson

US-based Football writer. German football guru with a wealth of experience in youth development and analysis. Data aficionado. Happily championing the notion that Americans have a knowledgeable voice in the beautiful game.

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