The knockout stages are filled with extra tension this tournament for Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo as he seeks to win football’s biggest trophy with his country in what is likely to be his last World Cup ever.
His side will line up at the Lusail Stadium as the slight favorite against Switzerland in its round of 16 match, but the Portuguese have already suffered a surprise defeat in Qatar.
Portugal seemed to be cruising through the group stages, defeating Ghana and Uruguay to confirm a spot in the knockout stages with a match to spare but succumbed to a shock defeat against South Korea in the last group stage match, after Hwang Hee-chan scored a 91st-minute winner off a Son Heung-min pass.
Despite this, Portugal will be buoyed by the expected return of midfielder Otávio who has missed the last two games with a thigh injury as well as star defender Rúben Dias who was rested against the Taegeuk Warriors.
Switzerland, meanwhile, navigated a difficult group with victories against Cameroon and Serbia seeing them through to the knockout stages despite a loss to Brazil.
The last time the two sides met was in the Nations League in June when Portugal dismantled Switzerland 4-0 in Lisbon. However, Switzerland then recovered to win the return fixture 1-0 a week later.
“For me, it is gonna be totally different because there is no friendly game. This is no Nations League – the pressure is high, and so now, it’s important how the players deal with this pressure,” Switzerland midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri said on Sunday, according to Reuters.
“We need a special performance. Portugal to be honest, they are a good team and for me also the favorite in this game, but we know our qualities too. We will try to have a good, special performance and try to cause them a lot of problem in the game.
“The key is really to have special performance from the whole team because, you know, we are Switzerland, we have no Cristianos in our team,” Shaqiri said.
Ronaldo, who has already become the first ever male player to score in five World Cups this tournament, will be seeking to equal the Portuguese record of nine World Cup goals held by football great Eusebio.
Can Spain avoid another upset?
Like Portugal, Spain is entering its round of 16 match against Morocco immediately after a shock defeat to an Asian nation – a 2-1 loss to Japan – in the group stages.
The two sides have played each other three times since 1961, but their rivalry stretches beyond football results and into their shared history which has often been marked by conflict.
On the football field, La Roja began this tournament with a dominant, comprehensive 7-0 victory over Costa Rica, but it fought to a 1-1 draw with Germany and lost to Japan, ultimately qualifying for the knockout stages in an extraordinary finale to Group E.
“I am not happy at all. Yes, we have qualified, I would have liked to be on top of winning this game. This was impossible because, in five minutes, Japan scored two goals … we were out, we were dismantled,” head coach Luis Enrique said after the loss to Japan, according to Reuters.
In a strange twist of fate, however, the defeat meant that Spain qualified as the group runner-up and arguably finished with an easier potential route to the semifinals, avoiding 2018 finalist Croatia in the round of 16 and a possible quarterfinal against five-time champion Brazil.
Morocco, however, has impressed so far at this World Cup, holding Croatia to a scoreless draw, defeating Canada and, most notably of all, defeating Belgium – the No. 2 ranked side in the world.
These results ensured that it progressed to the round of 16 for the first time since 1986, while its head coach Walid Regragui became the first Arab coach to guide a team to the knockout stages.
“We said we wanted to give everything we’ve got to get out of the group stages,” said Regragui, according to the Guardian. “We can tick that box now. So why not aim for the sky?
“We needed to change and we needed to change our mentality. We’re not going to stop here. We’ve got a lot of respect for all of the different opponents, but we are going to be a very difficult team to beat.”
When and where
Morocco vs. Spain: 10 a.m. ET at the Education City Stadium
Portugal vs. Switzerland: 2 p.m. ET at the Lusail Stadium
How to watch
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC