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World Cup: Has Ronaldo-like En-Nesyri erased nightmares after Morocco’s historic Portugal win?

11:52 GMT+3 11/12/2022
En-Nesyri Diogo Costa
The Atlas Lions’ striker rose highest to win the game on Saturday, becoming Africa’s best-ever side in the competition’s history

Greatness achieved. Morocco have had questions thrown at them all tournament, and they have answered, and then some.

They faced an uphill task progressing from the group comprising Belgium — the second-highest ranked team preceding the finals — to Croatia — finalists in 2018 and 12th in the Fifa rankings before a ball was kicked in Qatar.

Walid Regragui topped that section, conceding none to the European nations in 180 minutes.

They have since demonstrated those showings were no fluke, surviving Spain’s possession dominance for 120 minutes before keeping their nerve from 12 yards whilst the dependable Yassine Bounou did his bit between the sticks.

On Saturday, there were physical and mental doubts. Regragui had been disinclined to change his XI throughout the tournament, and creaks appeared against La Furia Roja in the round of 16.

Nayef Aguerd had to be withdrawn, centre-back partner and captain Romain Saiss was hamstrung, full-backs Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui were carrying knocks, and the latter was to miss Saturday’s last eight clash.

Sofyan Amrabat needed injections to kill the pain before facing Spain, and Hakim Ziyech was out on his feet around the hour mark.

And there was the mental side. All three African sides to have made it this far faltered. Cameroon were beaten by England after extra time in 1990, Senegal were eliminated by Ilhan Mansiz’s Golden Goal 12 years later and Ghana missed the continent’s finest chance in 2010 after failing to recover mentally from Asamoah Gyan’s penalty miss at the death.

Portugal were fresher, having effectively been home and dry before the hour in their last 16 win over Switzerland. This looked to be straightforward against a walking wounded Atlas Lions.

They dominated possession in the early exchanges, far from an anomaly against this Morocco iteration, but unsurprisingly could not break down the African nation.

The North Africans played through Portugal’s press expertly on most occasions and carried a threat in transition.

That said, their two best openings came via set pieces and fell to Youssef En-Nesyri, usually proficient in those situations.

In the sixth minute, the Selecao defence astoundingly left the team’s best header of the ball free just outside the six-yard box, but the Sevilla frontman could not find the target with the header. His technique was the right one, but the accuracy was lacking.

20 minutes later, En-Nesyri was connecting to another Ziyech dead-ball but also could not find the back of the net, admittedly from a more difficult chance but one he could have done better.

With half-time approaching, the centre-forward was third-time lucky. He was not the favourite to connect to Yahia Attiyat Allah’s cross, but he rose above Ruben Dias and Diego Costa’s poor attempt to take charge of the situation to head home the game’s opening goal.

It was almost Cristiano Ronaldoesque.

The Portugal superstar has leapt above many defences to score outstanding headed finishes throughout his career, and while this was not analogous to powered Ronaldo headers in the past, the spring in the jump was oh-so-familiar.

Morocco had never made it past the round of 16 at the World Cup, but they were just over 45 minutes away from making it to the last four. The Atlas Lions had never had a player score in two finals until En-Nesyri netted against Canada in the group phase, now he put them on the cusp of African history.

The Sevilla man endured a torrid season preceding the global showpiece, scoring twice in all competitions for the Andalusians.

Out of favour under Julen Lopetegui and even more so since Jorge Sampaoli returned to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium, the 25-year-old had played from the off only twice in La Liga, with his last league start coming way back in early September.

En-Nesyri came into the World Cup with 106 league minutes from a possible 630 minutes since Sampaoli’s return. The situation seemed dire.

Those Seville demons have been exorcised in Qatar for the striker whose name is forever etched into the record books. It took three attempts, and it could have been easy to mope after failing to convert earlier opportunities, but the team’s top marksman was not to be denied.

He has now netted twice in Qatar from two shots on target. Go back four years, and that header against Spain was his only effort on target in Russia.

En-Nesyri has put Morocco in a situation they would never have imagined before that opening clash with Croatia last month. Whatever happens from here, they are guaranteed at least two more games at what has felt like a home World Cup for Regragui’s troops.

Greatness has been achieved for the Atlas Lions, but how much longer can this underdog story prevail?