The romantic in us might think that the first team eliminated from the 2018 World Cup deserved better than this. For its second straight game, Morocco was the best team on the field, and yet now it’s out of the tournament, the beaten side in a pair of 1-0 losses, victims of its own profligate finishing.
The first loss was a heartbreaker, with Morocco losing on a 95th-minute own goal against an Iranian side it had spent much of the match bossing around. This time it was the usual suspect who gave Portugal the lead after only four minutes: Cristiano Ronaldo––now with early 2000s goatee accessory included––heading the ball in off another set piece.
If Portugal expected smooth sailing from there it’s safe to say it was misinformed. Nordin Amrabat turned Portuguese left back Raphaël Guerreiro into a turnstile. Karim El Hamadi controlled the midfield. Portugal never seemed settled, not even after Pepe ran over to Portugal manager Fernando Santos during a stoppage in play, demanding defensive changes.
Portugal seemed shocked––shocked!––-to find Morocco gambling on offense to hold its more celebrated opponent at bay. Ronaldo grew increasingly isolated as the game went on. Morocco got into the middle of and behind Portugal’s defense seemingly at will, switching fields to attack isolated defenders and playing two- and three-man combinations that left the Portuguese dizzy.
Then the Moroccans froze, their cleverness through the middle of the field giving way to blundering in the final third. Final passes skittered behind their intended targets or into the legs of the Portuguese defenders. They shot over and around and directly at Portugal keeper Rui Patricio, who made one tremendous save but otherwise found Morocco was doing the hard work for him.
Morocco knew goal-scoring would be a weakness going into the tournament. That’s why they had petitioned FIFA to allow the Spanish-born Barcelona forward Munir El Haddadi to represent them in the World Cup even though he’d already appeared in a competitive match for Spain. Given the rules on transfers of international allegiance it would have taken a miracle to get him onto the Morocco squad, and FIFA has outlawed miracles.
Morocco won’t be advancing, but it still has a part to play in this tournament. If Spain beats Iran Wednesday, Spain and Portugal will be tied atop the group with four points each. Iran could still advance with a win over Portugal in its final game, but if Portugal and Spain both find themselves winning in their final group-stage games, we could see a sprint to secure the highest goal differential. That might favor Spain, given that Morocco will have nothing to play for in their contest. Or maybe Morocco, now that it’s freed of the pressure of competing, will try to take the game to Spain, too, and try to win three-out-of-three games on points if not in the final score. Nobody tries to take the game to Spain, and to see the Moroccans try would be a win for romantics everywhere.