Morocco’s fairytale run continues as they stun Portugal to reach semifinals

Morocco became the first African team to reach the FIFA World Cup semifinals on Saturday with a 1-0 triumph over Portugal effectively ending Cristiano Ronaldo’s chances of winning the biggest showpiece event of the game.

Portugal, who again started without their star striker Ronaldo, conceded a goal three minutes before the end of the first half.

Portugal coach Fernando Santos chose youngster Gonçalo Ramos over the 37-year-old Ronaldo just like in the 6-1 rout of Switzerland in the last 16 where Ramos had scored a hat-trick. The only change was Ruben Neves replacing William Carvalho in midfield.

Morocco coach Walid Regragui had to replace injured key defenders Noussair Mazraoui and Aguerd, with Attiyat-Allah fielded.

Although Portugal launched a barrage of attacks they could not break open the Moroccan defense which had let in just one goal in the tournament in five matches and to an own goal from Nayef Aguerd in the group game against Canada. Fernando Santos’ team just came up against a staunch defence that wasn’t going to budge.

Goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who made his 50th appearance for Morocco became the first African goalkeeper to record three clean sheets in a single edition of the World Cup as he along with his teammates gave a dogged and disciplined performance that ended Africa’s quarterfinal jinx in the fourth attempt, after Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 had all gone out in the last-eight stage.

The Atlas Lions, whose supporters continuously roared at the Al Thumama stadium, had just under 27% possession, but the three shots on target matched the tally of Portugal and proved a constant threat on the break.

Although Portugal had more ball possession it was Morocco that struck with Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri heading in the 42nd minute when he beat Portugal goalkeeper Diogo Costa for a cross from Yahya Attiat-Allah.

In the second half, Santos brought in Ronaldo in the 51st minute but he was unable to force a turnaround for Portugal.

Earlier in the first half, Bruno Fernandes was denied by the crossbar. Morocco also held on after their substitute Walid Cheddira was sent off for a second bookable offence in stoppage time.

Atletico Madrid’s Felix remained the main threat and his attempt later from a distance took a wicked deflection off Jawad El Yamiq and went inches over. At the other end, Youssef En-Nesyri headed high from a promising position, Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech shot well wide from a distance, and Selim Amallah was also off target.

That showed the Moroccans would not rely solely on their firm defence, and they were awarded in the 42nd when En-Nesyri rose high in the air to beat Costa to Attiat-Allah’s cross and head in for 1-0.

Portugal were, however, almost level before halftime when Bruno Fernandes surprised Bounou from a right angle but his effort hit the crossbar.

Costa kept a dangerous free-kick cross out with plenty of traffic in front of him, and Ronaldo then came on in the 51st to join Ramos up front in search of the equalizer.

Ramos incredibly headed wide in the 57th completely unmarked before being taken off 10 minutes later, while Fernandes shot just over the bar.

Morocco hardly came out of their half, but Bounou tipped Felix’s 82nd-minute drive over the bar and was also on his guard against Ronaldo.

Cheddira was then sent off over a second yellow card, but Zakaria Aboukhlal should have clinched victory on the only late counter which almost backfired when Portugal got one last chance from Pepe which, however, went wide.

The largely Moroccan crowd at Al Thumama Stadium and the team erupted in joy at the end of the final whistle. They cannot believe what they have just witnessed with Atlas Lions supporters bursting into cheers and screams as their team made history.

In the opposite camp, Portugal supporters stood stunned and Ronaldo left the field in tears.

The Atlas Lions fairytale run continues on Wednesday when they face either title holders France or Euro 2020 runners-up England who complete the quarter-finals later on Saturday.

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