Moroccan all over the world! Atlas Lions roar into semis

Morocco became the first ever African side to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup, after sensationally beating Portugal 1-0 at the Al Thumama Stadium.

A common theme of these World Cup finals had been tight, cagey first half displays with neither side willing to take risks in the early going. This contest was no different, with Morocco’s incredible positional discipline on display to shut down Portugal’s many creative threats. Their water-tight defence had conceded just once across their previous eight games, but Walid Regragui was forced into changes, with both Nayef Aguerd and Noussair Mazraoui ruled out.

Stand-in centre-back Jawad El Yamiq was called into action before the interval, crucially deflecting João Félix’s effort wide of the target, and it was an intervention that would be rewarded. Having successfully shut down Portugal for most of the first half, the Atlas Lions grew into the contest and edged ahead as HT approached. Diogo Costa misjudged Yahia Attiyat Allah’s cross, failing to claim the high ball as Youssef En-Nesyri towered over him to nod into an empty net.

Fernando Santos’ men would now need to breach the tournament’s best backline to get back into the game, and Bruno Fernandes nearly produced an instant response when his spectacular effort looped over Yassine Bounou, but he was denied by the crossbar. With other attacking avenues limited though, Santos turned to his captain and introduced Cristiano Ronaldo for a world record-equalling 196th international cap in men’s football.

Even with Ronaldo on the pitch, Fernandes continued to prove Portugal’s most dangerous attacker, as the Manchester United midfielder lashed a powerful effort from the edge of the area narrowly over the bar. Moments of danger were fleeting though, as a side that looked so flowing in their destruction of Switzerland were completely stifled by a brilliant Moroccan rearguard. Whenever a gap could be exploited, Bounou was on hand to provide the heroics, producing a marvellous save to deny Félix as the clock ticked down.

Roared on by a deafening crowd, the Atlas Lions’ fierce resistance saw them make history, becoming the first Arab nation and qualifier from the CAF region to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, setting up another blockbuster clash with either France or England. Portugal were their latest victims, and they’ve now failed to reach the semi-finals for a fourth successive finals appearance. With veterans Ronaldo and Pepe in the twilight of their careers, a new era now surely beckons for the Euro 2016 winners.

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