World Cup Group B: Does Portugal need a Rock of Gibraltar to stop Morocco or will Ronaldo be sufficient?
Just a point separates Morocco and Portugal as the second round of matches get underway. Having met only once before in head-to-head competition, Morocco comes off the better when looking at the history. The North-African side won that clash 3-1.
After Aziz Bouhaddouz' injury-time own goal against Iran in their World Cup opener, Morocco head into this match with a certain amount of desperation; particularly given the prospect of facing Spain in their final game. While they are surely not a nation with eyes directly on the coveted trophy, any hopes Morocco had of a foray into the knockout rounds will be resting heavily on what can be construed as their final winnable game at this competition.
Portugal, on the other hand, will be looking to build on their performance in that game against Spain in the first wave of matches. If they are looking to replicate any of the successes from their 2016 European Cup triumph, Portugal will also be looking to win this fixture and put some worries about qualification to bed. Their manager, Fernando Santos, will certainly be wanting to provide Cristiano Ronaldo with the bigger platform on which he has proven time and time again so effective.
FIFA Ranking: 67th
Portugal currently sit joint second (with Spain) in Group B of the 2018 World Cup, with two games left to play. So far, Injuries are seemingly avoiding Santos' squad, where it has hit so many other teams rather hard. With that in mind, the starting line-up is likely to be similar to last time out. I mean, they're hardly going to drop Cristiano Ronaldo, are they?
Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes flanked the front two of Ronaldo and Guedes in the first outing and no doubt the talented duo will continue to sit just in-behind the strikers. They'll have to be at their best, however, with the brilliant Ricardo Quaresma waiting in the wings.
If there is anything to be critical about, it's Portugal's back four. For all Ronaldo's brilliance, he cannot always do it on his own. Against Spain, the centre-half pairing of Jose Fonte and Pepe were less than convincing. Although Morocco clearly aren't as talented as the Spaniard's, they simply shouldn't be gifting goals away.
FIFA Ranking: 41st
Morocco were perhaps labelled as the natural team to take the third place spot in the group; behind European powerhouses Spain and Portugal. But given their start to the competition (1-0 loss to Iran), they're certainly in danger of finishing rock bottom and leaving Russia with a whimper. With an array of players who could make an impact in this one, Morocco will be looking to their most talented superstars to step up on the big stage. With Medhi Benatia commanding the back four, there is more than enough experience there to marshall a stalwart defence - although there is only so much one can do against the Real Madrid and Portugal talisman.
It will be on Liverpool target Hakim Ziyech, and Younes Belhanda to be the driving creative force in the expected 4-2-3-1 formation in this one; playing on the right and attacking-midfield respectively. Anyone watching the game against Iran will also have the noticed the potential damage that Nordin Amrabat could inflict on a defence, but the ex-Watford man is fresh out of hospital and almost certainly out of contention. Youngsters like Real Madrid's Achraf Hakimi will need to rally behind captain Benatia and pull out a defensive masterclass to keep their country at the 2018 World Cup.
Walk in the park? Not a chance. This is a must win for Morocco and it rarely is a World Cup fixture won with ease these days. Portugal are clearly better-equipped to take all three points in this one, they'll be doing all the pressing. Don't be surprised to see this end in a draw, though, particularly if Morocco turn up and play to their capabilities.
With that said, I expect Ronaldo and company to prove just too strong. They hold hopes of going deep in this competition, and a win here is vital.