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World Cup: Can Morocco's walking wounded make African history against Portugal?

18:24 GMT 09/12/2022
Morocco World Cup 2022
Does Walid Regragui’s crew have enough left in the tank when they do battle with the Selecao?

Morocco have already matched or broken a few records but one more could fall when they play Portugal in Saturday’s third quarter-final World Cup clash.

Walid Regragui’s team are the first Arab team to compete in the global showpiece’s last eight and are the fourth African side to make it this far in the competition’s history, matching Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana.

The Atlas Lions had not made it out of the group since 1986 but have now gone one better in Qatar, making it past the Round of 16 where many other African sides have failed, to reach the cusp of greatness.

The Indomitable Lions could not get past England in 1990, losing after 120 minutes in Naples. Bruno Metsu’s Lions of Teranga were beaten 1-0 by Turkey 12 years later and the Black Stars missed a last-gasp penalty against Uruguay before losing on penalties at Soccer City in 2010.

Upon closer inspection, a trend is recognised. Cameroon played 120 minutes in their Round of 16 meeting before their last eight — defeating Colombia 2-1 — as did Senegal, although Henri Camara’s 104th-minute strike versus Sweden was a Golden Goal, and Ghana eliminated the United States of America after extra time.

Morocco continued that last 16 drift in Tuesday’s win over Spain, even becoming the first of the four nations to make the last eight after a penalty shoot-out.

Africa’s previous three participants at this stage competed in their final fixtures, even going on to play extra time against England (1990), Turkey (2002) and Uruguay (2010), suggesting they had enough left in the tank after bruising last 16 clashes.

The stats suggest Regragui’s troops ought to give Portugal a game at the Al-Thumama Stadium, but could accumulated fatigue and injuries undermine their prospects of making a historic semi-final?

A look at Morocco’s XIs so far in the showpiece shows a disinclination to make alterations to the tried and tested. Regragui has made one outfield change to his line-up in four games, with Abdelhamid Sabiri replacing Selim Amallah in their final group fixture with Canada.

Throw in Yassine Bounou’s late withdrawal as goalkeeper against Belgium and the Atlas Lions have made changes to the personnel in their XI just twice. Organisation has hitherto been Regragui’s hallmark in Qatar but so also has stability.

But can an unchanged team get them past a Portugal side with far less mileage?

Creaks began to appear against Spain, with Nayef Aguerd going off after 84 minutes and centre-back partner and captain Romain Saiss seemingly hamstrung. At full-back, Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui have carried knocks in Qatar and have been withdrawn a few times.

In front of them is Sofyan Amrabat, who was doubtful to play in that stunning Spain result and took pain-killing injections to feature at Education City Stadium.

“I am very emotional. It was a question of whether I could play this game,” the midfielder revealed after the historic win over La Furia Roja. “Last night I stayed up until 3 am with the physio, an injection before the game too. I can't abandon the guys and my country.”

Indeed, it was doubly outstanding that the midfielder produced arguably his finest performance of the competition hours after fearing he would not feature.

Hakim Ziyech is the team’s talisman but he looked out on his feet after the hour mark at Education City. How he played on for another hour and converted a pressure penalty should be commended.

On the other side is Sofiane Boufal, who seldom plays 90 minutes. The Angers wide attacker has been substituted in minutes 65, 64 and 65 against Croatia, Canada and Spain, with 72 minutes against Belgium being the longest he has lasted in any game in this competition.

“They are tired and we have injuries, but we aren't going to complain,” Regragui revealed in Friday’s press conference.“You need everyone if you are going to go far. No matter who plays, we will give our best and not make excuses.”

This fearless Morocco have outperformed expectations to become Africa’s best World Cup side. Now they need one more big performance to stand alone as the continent’s finest side to ever play on this stage.