Morocco already caused the upset of the round of 16 when it beat Spain on penalties to make it to the quarterfinals for the first time in its history, but the North Africans will have to replicate their heroics if they want to get past a reinvigorated Portugal.
Later in the day, the blockbuster final game of the quarterfinals will pit old foes England and France against each other.
Morocco looks to continue dream run
“Before it was just the Moroccans who supported us, now it is the Africans and Arabs,” Morocco manager Walid Regragui said about his team’s journey.
The Moroccans have become the darlings of the World Cup. At the first “Arab” World Cup, they became the first Arab nation to qualify for the quarterfinals of the World Cup and, as the first African side to qualify for the quarterfinals in over a decade, they represent so much more than just their own nation.
But this has not been the heroic performance of an underdog riding its luck.
The Moroccans have the meanest defense at the competition, conceding only a single own goal so far. Despite having the most difficult run to the last eight of any of the quarterfinalists – playing fellow quarterfinalist Croatia, Belgium and 2010 World Cup champion Spain along the way – only Argentina has conceded less shots than the Atlas Lions.
When teams do get shots off, they have to contend with Yassine “Bono” Bounou. The Sevilla keeper has not conceded a goal to an opposition player in over 300 minutes of football, including a penalty shootout where he saved two penalties.
After three or four key players were injured in its previous match against Spain and a grueling fixture list which included matches against nations ranked second, seventh and 12th in the world, Morocco is down to its bare bones. But that will not dampen the team’s spirit or ambition.
When asked about making a run deep into the tournament, head coach Regragui said, “At some point in Africa, we have to be ambitious and why not win the World Cup?”
In Morocco’s way of more history is a Portuguese side that looked, for the first time under Fernando Santos, to be fully unshackled and playing to its attack potential as it thrashed Switzerland 6-1.
But in order to realize the team’s potential, Santos made the hardest decision of his career, dropping the nation’s greatest ever player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite his glittering career and a title as the greatest goalscorer international football has ever seen (118 goals in 194 caps), there are signs that age is finally catching up with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
In contrast to the 37-year-old’s place as one of the most famous athletes, his replacement Gonçalo Ramos was making his first ever start for the national team, and he took his chance with aplomb.
The 21-year-old Benfica striker scored three goals to help Portugal dominate the Swiss. The last player to score a hat-trick on his World Cup full debut was Miroslav Klose, who is now the competition’s all-time record scorer.
But Ramos is not the only player who has been set free by the absence of Ronaldo. His former Manchester United teammate Bruno Fernandes was at his creative best and Atlético Madrid star João Félix looked like the player who has been long considered the man to take up the torch from Ronaldo.
The last time the two teams met was in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup in a frenetic game which Ronaldo settled with the only goal of the contest.
No team has scored more than Portugal’s 12 at the World Cup, but will the unstoppable Portugal be able to beat the immovable Morocco?
England looks to upset Mbappé and France
The biggest match of the round is left for last as world champion France, looking to become the first country in 60 years to retain the World Cup, takes on an England team on the verge of reaching only its third semifinal.
Despite both sides featuring some of the world’s best players, eyes inevitably turn to Kylian Mbappé. The PSG forward has been nothing short of sensational this tournament. He has scored five goals in just three starts so far, already surpassing his total from 2018.
The biggest question ahead of the game is whether England can shackle the forward.
“England will have prepared for Kylian, but he is in a position to make the difference,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “We have other players, but Kylian is Kylian and he can make the difference.”
Kyle Walker, who will likely be the defender tasked with stopping Mbappé, was confident when asked about it.
“I do understand what I need to do and that is to stop him,” he said. “It’s probably easier said than done, but I don’t underestimate myself.”
But Mbappé is not the only French threat going forward. On the opposite flank is Ousmane Dembélé who is not the complete product like Mbappé but is no less dangerous with his blistering pace and dribbling. In between the speedsters is Olivier Giroud, who became France’s all-time record goal scorer earlier in the tournament while operating as a foil for the wide men.
Behind the front three is Atlético man Antoine Griezmann, who after a difficult few seasons, looks back to being the player who took both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup by storm.
Despite the excellent performances of Harry Maguire and John Stones in the heart of the English defense so far, they have not been tested by anything close to this attack at a major tournament.
However, unlike in previous tournaments, England has plenty of tools of its own to hurt a vulnerable French defense.
Along with Portugal, the Three Lions are the top scorers in Qatar. They won their previous two matches 3-0, and for the first time this century, come into this match with more depth in their team than their opponents who have been hampered by a host of injuries.
Like Giroud, Harry Kane is on the verge of becoming England’s all-time record goal scorer. He is now only one goal behind Wayne Rooney’s record of 53.
Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford both have three goals a piece despite neither being guaranteed a starting spot and Jordan Henderson has made an unexpected return to the starting lineup with excellent results. The Liverpool captain scored the opener against Senegal and has added much needed balance to the team.
With two stellar attacks – and two unconvincing defenses – this game has the potential to be the best of the entire tournament.
Where and when?
Morocco vs Portugal: Saturday, December 10, 10 a.m. ET at the Al Thumama Stadium
England vs France: Saturday, December 10, 2 p.m. ET and the Al Bayt Stadium
How to watch
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media