Thursday 19 September 2019

WATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo breaks another record as he bags his fourth goal of the World Cup

Portugal 1 Morocco 0

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring their first goal
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring their first goal

It was an uninspiring win for Portugal in the end. A lucky one, Morocco will say.

But dull and effective is how Fernando Santos likes it, it always has been.

The veteran coach will never be renowned for teams that dazzle and pop and he had publicly urged his team to have "intensity and focus" rather than dominance or style in this potential banana skin of a fixture with the Atlas Lions.

Santos was right to be wary of Herve Renard's side, who may end up being one of the best-ever World Cup sides to go home with zero points if, as expected, they fall to Spain in Kaliningrad next week.

There will be those who point to this flat display and Morocco's dominance of possession as evidence Portugal are not World Cup contenders but it may, in fact, be the opposite.

It wasn't a vintage display by any means but in winning Euro 2016 they drew all three group games - finishing behind Hungary and Iceland to qualify as a lucky loser - and won only a single game, the semi-final against overachieving minnows Wales, in 90 minutes.

"We have to play like we did in the European Championships," Santos had said in his pre-match press conference. In many ways he got exactly that; a clean sheet and, in the end, victory and vindication.

Few had pegged Portugal as likely European champions two years ago, and even those who did had done so on the assumption that it must be Cristiano Ronaldo who drags them kicking and screaming to glory. That turned out to be a little wide of the mark, with Ronaldo reduced to a sideline role through injury as an Eder-inspired Portuguese side knocked off hosts France in the final. They obviously would need Ronaldo firing to be at their absolute best, and that's the level they must achieve to be triumphant in Russia, but they are not utterly bereft without him.

Ronaldo does have that force-of-nature feel to him in major competitions though, evident in the way he comes alive in the late stages of the Champions League at the biggest possible moment. Four goals already, the latest an early header that ultimately settled this game, has him on the inside track to the Golden Boot - one of the few trophies he has never won in a glittering career.

The hat-trick against Spain in the opener last Friday was one of those performances that makes you believe anything is possible for a team with the 33-year-old forward in this form. While much has been made of this being Lionel Messi's final chance to win the World Cup, Ronaldo is the one of the eternally inseparable pair that you would expect to be more driven by that, with that ferocious will to win that seems to guide his every step.

Ultimately, it must be acknowledged that despite a contained performance against Morocco, it is matching Spain - arguably the best team in Russia - in Sochi which elevates Portugal a little to be considered legitimate contenders. Beyond one of the greatest goalscorers to ever pull on a pair of football boots, Fernando Santos has at his disposal a deep squad of high-calibre players but also players that can bring different qualities to proceedings.

For this game against Morocco he brought Joao Mario, a more physical, box-to-box midfielder, in for Bruno Fernandes, the Portuguese league's outstanding playmaker last season. He could just as easily have gone for the jumbo package with Manuel Fernandes, a touch more finesse with Adrien Silva or width and unpredictability in the shape of Ricardo Quaresma.

It is the defence which is the weakest part of this squad, a little old and short of depth at centre-back but with enough experience and nous to guide them through encounters like these, while the full-backs are good enough going both ways and provide balance. The lack of speed in the heart of the defence is one of the reasons that Portugal have to play a deep backline, but it is also Santos' preferred way of setting up anyway. This is reactive football where the focus is on not conceding so one goal is enough. At the Luzhniki that was exactly what happened.

There is a feeling that Santos is not really concerned about the attack because he has enough top-class players in that area of the pitch for it to take care of itself. A coach who prides himself on defending well can only have been disappointed with the chances coughed up to the Moroccans, with Rui Patricio making one exceptional save when the equaliser appeared almost certain.

But as this Portuguese side do, they held on and secured the result. They are not built to dominate and play expansive football but when they come up against more proactive opposition that may be to their benefit.

Can they win the World Cup though?

On this display it seems a long shot but at Euro 2016 they were slow starters who only just squeaked through the group stage. In a tournament that has thus far seen few outstanding sides the key will be to remain in the competition and rely on your system and your big-game players to do the rest.

Portugal are intending to do just that.

Independent News Service

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