Portugal, and Ronaldo, bow out against Cavani’s brilliant double

Ricardo Quaresma attempted to dance around Christian Stuani on the right wing. Portugal were desperately chasing a late equaliser against a determined Uruguayan defence, and their World Cup future was on the line. Eventually, Quaresma decided he couldn’t really get past Stuani. Instead, he jumped over him, intent on gaming the referee and winning a free-kick in a dangerous position. César Ramos was not fooled, the ball went out for a goal-kick, and Portugal reacted indignantly. Cristiano Ronaldo, their captain, undisputed star player and main goal scorer, led the protests. He ran towards Ramos, got in his face, and received a yellow card for his troubles. Even if Portugal had managed to equalise in the final moments, and even if they had made it through to the quarter-finals, Ronaldo would have been suspended. It wasn’t really fitting that what was potentially Ronaldo’s final act at a World Cup involved a disciplinary indiscretion.

The game was always likely to be an interesting one, with both sides fielding solid defences and dangerous attacks headlined by world-class talent (Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani for Uruguay, Ronaldo for Portugal). It was Suárez and Cavani who struck first. Cavani started it, receiving the ball on the right wing and switching it across Portugal’s back four to pick out Suárez on the left. Having received the truly remarkable pass, Suárez cut back onto his right foot, as if preparing to shoot. His cross almost looked like a shot as it flew towards the back post. Then Cavani got on the end of it. If Portugal thought Cavani had played his part after his brilliant cross-field ball, they were wrong. The Uruguayan striker put in an immense effort to complete a brilliant cross-field one-two which broke down Portugal’s defence. The finish, a header from close range, was the easy part.

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César Ramos (right) shows Cristiano Ronaldo a yellow card for dissent. Ronaldo lost his cool in the final moments of Portugal’s defeat, culminating in his second booking of the tournament.

Now chasing the game, Portugal controlled possession and territory but never really looked capable of breaching Uruguay’s solid and very determined defence. Ronaldo had a shot blocked. Gonçalo Guedes had a shot blocked. William Carvalho tried a long shot. It was blocked. Crosses were played into the box, looking for Ronaldo, but they were never quite on point and they were mostly claimed without challenge by Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. Occasionally, they weren’t too far off, and Diego Godín would have to head them away instead. When Uruguay went forward quickly after Portugal’s missed chances, Suárez won a free-kick and forced Rui Patrício into a tough save as he directed said free-kick under the wall. It was more dangerous than any of Portugal’s many attacks. Back up the other end, Ronaldo took a free-kick on the edge of the box. It was blocked, by the wall, and cleared away by Lucas Torreira’s bicycle kick. A succession of poor crosses and ineffective attacks later, Portugal went to half time without looking like breaking down Uruguay’s seemingly impenetrable defence.

Portugal started the second half much as they finished the first, dominating possession but failing to make much of it. Then, shortly after resumption, they scored. It all happened quite suddenly, starting with some nice build-up play and a corner emanating from Adrien Silva’s shot on the edge of the area. Silva slipped, but his shot was somehow deflected away for a corner. From the corner, they found the back of the net. It was a rare defensive lapse from Uruguay which created the opening. Raphaël Guerreiro’s cross beat Godín’s partner, José María Giménez, and Ronaldo’s big leap. Unfortunately for Uruguay, Pepe was there, and completely unmarked. He had no problems getting his head to the ball, and he had even fewer issues putting the header into the back of the net.

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Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring one of his two goals. Both of Cavani’s goals were brilliant finishes, and they delivered Uruguay to victory.

It didn’t take long for Uruguay to take the lead again. Cavani scored the goal, beating Patrício with a classy finish and sending the Uruguayan fans into raptures. It began with a mistake. Pepe, the goal scoring hero only a few minutes earlier, bungled a defensive header, presenting Nahitan Nández with the opportunity to run at Portugal’s now stretched defence. He played a beautiful sideways pass to Cavani, who received the ball just inside the box and in plenty of space. Cavani had a few options as he approached Nández’s perfect pass. He could pick up the ball and dribble towards goal, getting himself to close range before unleashing a shot. He could have dribbled wide and put in a cross for Suárez, who was streaming through the middle. Instead, he shot first-time. He angled his run towards the ball so that he could shoot with the instep of his right foot, and he nonchalantly curled the ball past Patrício and into the opposite corner of the net. It was a truly remarkable strike, and it left Portugal needing another equaliser.

Portugal began to improve as they pursued their second goal, but they couldn’t find the elusive equaliser. Muslera made a mess of dealing with Guerreiro’s cross, but Bernardo Silva couldn’t capitalise as he blasted it over the top of an empty goal. Mexican referee Ramos decided he had fouled Muslera anyway. Their crosses became more dangerous, and they were creating shots in better positions. Uruguay didn’t seem to care. Godín won the ball in the air every time it was kicked in his direction, and Uruguay’s hard work meant that they continued to weather the storm. They threw themselves in front of shots. They were always there to challenge the Portuguese. Ronaldo attempted to intimidate his opponents with tricks and breeze straight past them. Unfazed, they just waited until his tricks had been completed and kicked the ball away contemptuously. Uruguay had an answer to everything Portugal threw at them. By the end, Portugal had nothing left to throw.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Uruguay 1 (Cavani 7, 62)
Portugal 1 (Pepe 55)
Referee: César Ramos (Mex)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Cáceres, Giménez, Godín, Laxalt; Nández (Sánchez 81), Vecino, Torreira, Bentancur (Rodríguez 63); Suárez, Cavani (Stuani 74).
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patrício – Ricardo Pereira, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva (Quaresma 65), João Mário (Manuel Fernandes 85); Guedes (André Silva 74), Ronaldo.

Top 5
1. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani was in brilliant form, scoring both of Uruguay’s goals and providing a touch of class to every Uruguayan move. His finish to complete the second goal was superlative, and his hard work and effortless class allowed him to score the game’s opener. His combination with Suárez looks scary, and Uruguay will be hoping that the late niggle he picked up doesn’t hurt their campaign.
2. Diego Godín (Uruguay)
Where would Uruguay be without Diego Godín? It’s certain that they’d be nowhere near as solid. Once again, Uruguay’s captain and defensive leader was colossal, rebuffing Portugal’s attacks thanks to his height, experience and brilliant positioning. He always seemed to be exactly where Uruguay needed him, and he ensured Uruguay’s safe passage to the quarter-finals.
3. William Carvalho (Portugal)
William was in fine form, pulling the strings from deep in midfield and taking charge of all of Portugal’s attacking play. His defensive work rate was good, but it was his underrated playmaking ability which really stood out on a night where little went right for the Portuguese.
4. Lucas Torreira (Uruguay)
Torreira’s defensive effort was unbelievable, as he pushed himself to his limits with his determination to get in front of shots and keep Portugal from breaking through. He threw himself in Portugal’s way, at one point ending up on the ground after blocking a particularly powerful effort from Ronaldo. He fought very hard.
5. Bernardo Silva (Portugal)
Silva hadn’t really found form in the group stage, and he found himself dropped for Portugal’s crucial clash with Iran as a result. Restored to the starting line-up, he finally justified his selection, looking dangerous as he ran at Uruguayan defenders and putting in some incisive crosses.

Iran fight hard, but controversial draw not good enough

Iran’s players lay on the turf of the Mordovia Arena, exhausted and devastated. Through three group games they had fought desperately to escape a tough group. Now, after a pulsating, drama-filled encounter with European champions Portugal, they had failed. The final score was 1-1 in a game filled with flashes of brilliance, plenty of controversy and a number of moments that will stick in the memory. That didn’t matter for Iran. They gave their all, and they still fell agonisingly short of the last 16. Had Mehdi Taremi, one-on-one with Portuguese goalkeeper Rui Patrício deep into injury time, managed to put his shot on target instead of hitting it into the side netting, Iran would have almost certainly come away with a famous victory. He didn’t, Iran didn’t, and Portugal barely progressed from a group they were expected to cruise through.

There wasn’t too much in the way of first half excitement, as Iran replicated their defensive approach from earlier matches. Led by Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored all of Portugal’s goals in their first two matches, Portugal tried to find a way to break through the Iranian defence, but their opponents held firm and even presented a danger on the counter-attack. Early on, Portugal’s best chances were coming courtesy of Iran’s goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, not their talismanic striker. João Mário had a chance to shoot at an open net when Beiranvand collided with teammate Saeid Ezatolahi, but he blasted his effort over the bar. Then came the bizarre scenes of Beiranvand remonstrating with his defender, with the pair nearly coming to blows. Similar issues arose for Iran in the minutes that followed, with Ricardo Quaresma testing out Beiranvand and twice drawing errors with crosses close to goal. The Iranian keeper missed one completely and let the next slip through his grasp, and after his brilliant form in Iran’s opening games the nerves seemed to be getting to him. Ronaldo, on the other hand, had been quiet, his impact limited to one shot straight at Beiranvand and a free-kick blasted straight into the wall.

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Alireza Beiranvand (in blue) saves Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty early in the second half. The save was the highlight of Beiranvand’s tournament, and it kept Iran in the game.

As the first half progressed, Beiranvand’s work became increasingly secure and Portugal’s chances began to dry up. Ronaldo was being held very effectively, and Iran looked more dangerous than the Portuguese when they found space on the break. The combination of Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun was creating problems, and Ezatolahi forced Patrício into action when he found space to head the ball goalward from a well-worked free-kick routine. Ronaldo had a chance when, seemingly out of frustration, he dropped deep into midfield and tried a shot from an impossible distance. It was on target, but Beiranvand gathered comfortably. It looked like the deadlock would remain firmly unbroken when the half time whistle blew.

Enter Quaresma. The veteran hadn’t started Portugal’s first two games, but he had an impact when inserted into the team at the expense of the talented but misfiring Bernardo Silva. Now, with Portugal needing some kind of spark to break down a very disciplined Iranian defence, it was the winger, not Ronaldo, who provided it. He played a neat one-two with Adrien Silva, struck the ball from just outside the area and curled it into the back of the net. With the outside of his right boot. It was an incredibly difficult shot made to look ridiculously easy, and it gave Portugal a crucial lead heading into half time.

Then the big moment came. Ronaldo, having been quiet, drew a foul from Ezatolahi just inside the penalty area. The penalty was initially waved away by Enrique Cáceres, but the video assistant referee stepped in and the penalty was soon given. It wasn’t the VAR’s last involvement of the evening. As Ronaldo stepped up to take the penalty, Iran were mentally preparing to go two goals down. He may have been out of sorts, but Ronaldo just doesn’t miss penalties in big moments. On the sideline, Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz (a former coach of Portugal) had already given up, throwing away his jacket in disgust and storming away from the dugout and into the rooms. Then Beiranvand, earlier looking like the weakest link, stood up. He saved the penalty, flinging himself the right way and giving Iran hope. Queiroz, presumably informed of his keeper’s feat, shamelessly returned to the bench as though nothing had happened.

Iran began to push more aggressively after Beiranvand’s moment of heroism, and the game started to descend into chaos. Players were throwing themselves to the turf left right and centre, and Quaresma found himself in Cáceres’ book when he dispensed vigilante justice on Ezatolahi for what he saw as an unpunished trip. Azmoun went down in the box, and Queiroz’s vehement appeals for VAR involvement were cut short when Cáceres moved towards the touchline. The Paraguayan referee wasn’t interested in checking for a foul, instead worrying himself with silencing Queiroz’s steady stream of protests. The Iranian coach wasn’t banished from the sideline, but he wasn’t far off it either. Then, shortly afterwards, another VAR review threatened to derail Portugal’s tournament. It concerned Ronaldo, and a clash with Morteza Pouraliganji.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (left) is shown a yellow card after a lengthy VAR review. Ronaldo, and Portugal, were slightly lucky the referee didn’t see fit to give him a red card for his challenge on Morteza Pouraliganji.

Blocked by his opponent, and presumably frustrated with the way things had gone for him, the Portuguese captain decided to push his way past forcefully. He also made slight contact with Pouraliganji’s chin, and the Iranian defender was more than willing to take advantage of the unnecessary blow. He crashed to the deck like a sack of potatoes, and Ronaldo’s slight but completely uncalled for action was suddenly under intense scrutiny from the omnipresent VAR officials. As all eyes turned to Cáceres, now rewatching the incident for himself, it was incredible just how much drama could be imbued in the moment of one man staring at a tiny screen. Concern was writ large upon Ronaldo’s face as Cáceres marched towards him to deliver his verdict. It was yellow, and all of Portugal breathed a gigantic sigh of relief.

Then they nearly got knocked out anyway, partly thanks to a bizarrely awarded penalty. Azmoun jumped for a ball into the box, and his header caught Cédric’s hand on the way through. It was an innocuous enough touch, unavoidable and clearly not deliberate. The VAR thought otherwise. After a lengthy deliberation, and another dramatic moment as Cáceres peered at the little screen, the penalty was awarded. Portugal couldn’t believe it, and were suddenly placed under immense pressure as Karim Ansarifard blasted an unstoppable penalty just under the bar. It was an incredibly difficult shot to pull off, but Ansarifard executed it perfectly, not feeling the pressure of the importance of his kick and paying no attention to how little time remained on the clock. It was, above all, a gutsy kick, and it was a perfect representation of Iran’s incredibly gutsy World Cup effort.

Saransk – Mordovia Arena
Iran 1 (Ansarifard 90+3)
Portugal 1 (Quaresma 45)
Referee: Enrique Cáceres (Par)
Iran (4-5-1): Beiranvand – Rezaeian, Hosseini, Pouraliganji, Hajsafi (Mohammadi 56); Taremi, Jahanbakhsh (Ghoddos 70), Ezatolahi (Ansarifard 76), Ebrahimi, Amiri; Azmoun.
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patrício – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Quaresma (Bernardo Silva 69), Adrien Silva, William Carvalho, João Mário (João Moutinho 84); André Silva (Guedes 90+6), Ronaldo.

Top 5
1. Alireza Beiranvand (Iran)
Beiranvand capped off an extraordinary World Cup with a brilliant final game, saving a penalty from Ronaldo and continually frustrating the Portuguese with his solidity in goal. He started shakily but was a rock once he got going, and his massive throws forward when he collected the ball had to be seen to be believed.
2. Pepe (Portugal)
Pepe came in for criticism after a blatant dive in Portugal’s game against Morocco, and he reacted with a brilliant defensive performance. He was always there as Iran desperately tried to break through the Portuguese defence, and he made seemed to be the guy charged with clearing most of Iran’s dangerous forays forward.
3. Ricardo Quaresma (Portugal)
Quaresma gave Iran plenty of problems with his work on the right wing, starting the game by testing Beiranvand with some dangerous crosses before evolving into a more central role cutting in from the sideline. He gave Portugal the breakthrough with an effortless shot from just outside the box, and provided the spark they needed to get a result despite Ronaldo’s off-game.
4. Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
Jahanbakhsh always looked dangerous on the break, using his pace and skill to good effect. He always tracked back to do his defensive duties, and his counter-attacking combination with Azmoun created plenty of difficulties for Portugal as they looked to get past the solid Iranian defence.
5. Omid Ebrahimi (Iran)
Ebrahimi put in a huge effort all game, working hard in defence and attack and making an impact all over the field. His tireless efforts in midfield were instrumental in Iran’s defensive solidity, and he provided the consistent presence Iran needed to make an impact going forward.

Portugal ride Ronaldo’s wave to edge out determined Atlas Lions

Fayçal Fajr lifted the free-kick long into the box. In the dying embers of Morocco’s clash with Portugal, the Atlas Lions were desperately trying to recoup a one-goal deficit that had existed from the fourth minute of the match. At stake were Morocco’s chances of progressing from a tough group, with a loss certainly consigning Hervé Renard’s team to elimination – with one game still to play. Fajr’s free-kick was launched at the mass of bodies now crowding the Portuguese penalty area, and it fell at the feet of Moroccan captain Medhi Benatia, who had space and drew back his left foot to shoot from inside the area. He had missed in an almost identical situation earlier in the half, but surely this time, with the game on the line and everything set up perfectly, he could test Rui Patricio. Once again, the ball cleaved the air over the bar, sailing away from the goals and, ultimately, proving to be Morocco’s last chance to save their tournament. They fought valiantly, but they ultimately fell to a goal from the man who has destroyed so many of Portugal’s opponents: Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Cristiano Ronaldo lunges forward to score the only goal of the game in the fourth minute. After going ahead early on, the Portuguese held onto their lead for the rest of the match.

Whatever plan Hervé Renard had made to deal with Ronaldo after his stunning hat-trick in Portugal’s opening clash with Spain, it didn’t work. Less than five minutes had elapsed when Bernardo Silva and João Moutinho combined to deliver the ball into the box from a Portuguese corner, and Ronaldo, apparently unmarked and in plenty of space, headed home from close range. Manuel da Costa, assigned to stick with the Portuguese captain, was neatly sidestepped, and Munir El Kajoui had absolutely no chance as Ronaldo dived forward and drilled his header into the back of the net. When, a few minutes later, Ronaldo found space to shoot in the box and only narrowly missed, and Morocco seemed incapable of keeping him down.

Then things began to turn. Morocco started to put some sustained pressure on the Portuguese, working to win the ball high up the pitch and beginning to take some control. On the left wing, Hakim Ziyech was the architect, creating their best chance when he picked out Medhi Benatia from a corner and twice working his way into space to fire shots at Rui Patricio. In the meantime, he drifted all over the field, stringing together excellent passes and creating plenty of problems. On the right, Nordin Amrabat, who started the game wearing a skull cap but ditched it after 15 minutes, was the main weapon. He had pace, skill and threatened every time he received the ball, especially in space. Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro was a man under siege, often left embarrassed by his quicker, more skilled and cannier opponent, and Amrabat looked like breaking the game wide open on a number of occasions. Unfortunately for Morocco, he didn’t. Portugal still carried some threat, and El Kajoui was forced into a tough reflex save to deny Gonçalo Guedes just before the break.

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Nordin Amrabat (left) attempts to take on Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro. Amrabat was too good for Guerreiro all day, and he created plenty of trouble for Portugal.

Morocco started the second half with all of the zest they showed in the first, but they still struggled to break through Portugal’s defence. Patricio was forced to make a brilliant save to deny Younès Belhanda, whose headed effort from another dangerous Ziyech free-kick was destined for the bottom corner before the experienced goalkeeper deflected it away for the relative harmlessness of a corner. Shortly afterwards, Benatia blasted a shot over the bar, and it seemed like Morocco were beginning to lay a prolonged siege to the Portuguese goal. They couldn’t. The chances continued to come, but Portugal were able to assert just enough control to keep the pressure from mounting. Ziyech had a great chance, but his shot was deflected over the bar. The corner came to nothing. Pepe deflected a Moroccan corner into his arm. Morocco’s protestations for a penalty came to nothing. Morocco fought until the final whistle, and dominated a Portuguese team who didn’t disprove the theory that they’re too reliant on Ronaldo. It all came to nothing.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Portugal 1 (Ronaldo 4)
Morocco 0
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patricio – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva (Gelson Martins 59), João Moutinho (Adrien Silva 89), William Carvalho, João Mário (Fernandes 70); Guedes, Ronaldo.
Morocco (4-2-3-1): El Kajoui – Dirar, Benatia, da Costa, Hakimi; El Ahmadi (Fajr 86), Boussoufa; N Amrabat, Belhanda (Carcela 75), Ziyech; Boutaïb (El Kaabi 69).

Top 5
1. Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)
Amrabat was in blistering form down the right, terrorising Guerreiro all match and giving the Portuguese defence plenty of problems. His delivery into the box was dangerous, and if Morocco had a clinical finisher in the middle he could have finished the game with multiple assists.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo only needed one moment to win Portugal the match. His evasion of da Costa at an early corner and subsequent finish proved to be the only goal of the match, and it gave him a remarkable record of four goals in two games at this tournament. Do Portugal rely on him too much? We shall see.
3. Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Ziyech was everywhere as Morocco tried desperately to equalise, and he looked like one of the only Moroccan players capable of creating chances against a solid Portuguese back four. His set piece delivery was brilliant, and caused plenty of nervous moments for Portugal.
4. Rui Patricio (Portugal)
Considering Morocco’s control of possession and territory, Patricio had less work to do than he may have otherwise expected. He was, however, called upon to make some tough stops, with his effort to deny a well-taken Belhanda header a particularly brilliant – and crucial – intervention.
5. Mbark Boussoufa (Morocco)
Boussoufa worked hard on and off the ball and allowed Morocco to control the game with his work in the middle. He created some chances with dangerous deliveries into the Portuguese penalty area, and put good pressure on Portugal when they had the ball.

Iberian thriller ends in high-scoring stalemate

Cristiano Ronaldo was facing off with Nacho. The Portuguese captain had the ball at his feet, and he was looking to put the Spanish under pressure in the opening minutes of the match. In the lead-up to the blockbuster game, Spain’s very public decision to sack coach Julen Lopetegui two days before the tournament threw their preparation into disarray, and created a media storm. Now, under the temporary guidance of Fernando Hierro, they needed to show something. Less than three minutes had elapsed when Ronaldo, with dazzling speed and perfect control, executed a stepover, looked to breeze past Nacho and tripped over the stand-in right-back’s outstretched leg. It was a penalty, and Ronaldo had absolutely no trouble scoring from the spot. Spain’s worst nightmare seemed to be unfolding before their eyes. They needed to show some serious resilience.

The ball was kicked long out of the Spanish defence, to the advantage of Pepe. Spain had started to take control of possession after going behind, creating a few chances with their exquisite passing game. For their part, the Portuguese were looking to hit them on the break, with the dangerous Ronaldo creating a couple of very good opportunities against the flow. Now, Portugal’s strong centre-back just had to beat Diego Costa, Spain’s skilled but slightly controversial striker, in the air. He didn’t. Costa brought the ball to ground, and Pepe went down in an attempt to win a free-kick. Now clear to run at the defence, Costa was faced with two opponents, Cédric and José Fonte. He paused at the top of the box, relying on the space he had behind him, and took a touch to the right. The defence followed. He took a touch to the left. The defence followed. He took another touch to the right. The defence followed again. Behind him, a crowd of Portuguese players reluctant to involve themselves watched as Costa’s shot travelled in between his two markers and eluded Rui Patricio’s dive. Spain, against all odds, were level.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (far left) celebrates scoring the game’s opening goal from the spot. The goal was the first of his brilliant hat-trick.

Pepe’s long pass found Gonçalo Guedes on the edge of the box. Portugal were still struggling to keep pace with the Spanish as the first half wound down, with Isco coming tantalisingly close to scoring with a thunderous strike that hit the bar and landed on the goal line. It bounced out, and Portugal breathed a sigh of relief. 15 minutes after that near-miss, Guedes controlled the ball with a touch before shuffling it to the feet of Ronaldo. Portugal’s talisman had time, space and was in a dangerous position on the edge of the box. It was the chance Portugal were looking for. With his left foot, Ronaldo fired away – and pinpointed goalkeeper David de Gea. It was an easy save, especially for de Gea, the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. At least, it should have been an easy save. Instead, it rolled through his normally safe hands and into the back of the net. Ronaldo had two, and Portugal had the lead at the end of a dramatic and pulsating first half.

David Silva and Koke stood over the free-kick. Since half time, Spain had been fighting hard to recoup the deficit, and the set piece gave them a chance. What happened next was a pretty simply choreographed routine, but it looked like poetry in motion. Silva and Koke played a rather unnecessary one-two, with the ball ending up in the spot of the original free-kick. Then Silva put in his cross. At first glance, it looked too deep for Sergio Busquets to score. As the play unfolded, with Busquets nodding the ball into the centre of the goalmouth, it became clear that Silva had executed his delivery to perfection. In vain, Portuguese defenders scrambled to clear the ball that was hanging on their goal line. Diego Costa was quicker, and the sides were level once again.

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Sergio Ramos (right) blocks a shot from Gonçalo Guedes. Ramos came in the game under fire after becoming a key part of the controversy surrounding Julen Lopetegui, but he managed to put in a strong performance in defence.

An attempted Spanish foray into the Portuguese box came to nothing, cleared into some vacant space outside the area. Spain had not let up after their equaliser, and barely three minutes later they were surging forward again. Now, right-back Nacho was streaming forward at pace. He had spied the ball that was slowly bouncing away from the Portuguese goal, and he was the first to get there. On the pristine turf of Fisht Stadium, the ball bounced truly as Nacho attempted a first-time shot from range. It was unstoppable, slamming into the inside of the left goalpost and ricocheting across the goal line to career into the other post. The only question was which way the ball would rebound, and whether Nacho would be cruelly denied as Isco was at the height of the first half’s action. He wasn’t. After bouncing off both posts it rolled safely into the back of the net. Thanks to Nacho’s wonder strike, Spain had the lead with half an hour left to play. They just needed their experience to see them through.

Ronaldo was fouled on the edge of the box. With two minutes left, the scoreboard still read 3-2 in the favour of the Spaniards. With a late lead, they were passing the ball around as calmly as ever, and they were continuing to evade an increasingly desperate Portuguese press hell-bent on taking the ball from them. For most of the second half, Ronaldo had been a frustrated figure up front, letting his anger show and struggling to make an impact. Now, the captain was preparing to take a free-kick within easy scoring range. Raphaël Guerreiro was also standing next to the ball in seeming readiness to take the kick, but it was obvious that Ronaldo was the man who would shoulder the responsibility. There was no way he would give up such a crucial opportunity. He languidly stepped up to take the kick, showing no sign of pressure or nervousness. Then, with seemingly no effort, he lifted the ball over the wall into the top corner. De Gea didn’t bother to move. There was nothing he could have done. Ronaldo had a hat-trick, Portugal had equalised at the end of a riveting contest, and the Spanish fell just short of a dream start to their World Cup campaign.

For Spain, the result will be a disappointment, but they will take solace from their resilience in coming from behind after all of the off-field drama surrounding the team. For Portugal, a draw with the Spanish is a great way to start the tournament, and Ronaldo’s form will be an added positive to take from the match. For everyone else, the game was a pulsating, high-pressure contest with plenty of goals, plenty of drama and plenty of tension. When this tournament is over, this match may well be remembered as a classic, and if it’s a sign of things to come this World Cup will be a very exciting show.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Portugal 3 (Ronaldo 4 pen, 44, 88)
Spain 3 (Diego Costa 24, 55, Nacho 58)
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Ita)
Portugal (4-2-3-1): Rui Patricio – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Raphaël Guerreiro; Moutinho, William Carvalho; Bernardo Silva (Quaresma 69), Guedes (André Silva 80), Bruno Fernandes (João Mário 68); Ronaldo.
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Nacho, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Sergio Busquets, Koke; Silva (Lucas Vázquez 86), Isco, Iniesta (Thiago 70); Diego Costa (Iago Aspas 77).

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Diego Costa (right) leads Pepe to the ball. Costa and Pepe had a running battle going all night, with Costa finishing with two goals.

Top 5
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo was head-and-shoulders above the rest of his teammates, scoring all three of Portugal’s goals and creating plenty of other chances while dropping back into midfield. His game-tying free-kick under pressure was remarkable, and he showed that he has come to play at this World Cup. With the confidence coming from a hat-trick under his belt, he will be a force to be reckoned with.
2. Diego Costa (Spain)
Costa scored two equalisers for the Spanish, firstly beating out three defenders to score into the bottom corner and then positioning himself well to slam the ball home from a metre out. He excelled in getting himself into dangerous spots and finding space, and he was a constant goal threat before his substitution late in the game. If he can keep this form up Spain will be much tougher to face.
3. Isco (Spain)
Isco orchestrated most of Spain’s play from attacking midfield, forming a graceful and effective combination with Silva and Iniesta and showing a zest in attack that his more experienced teammates couldn’t quite provide. He was remarkably unlucky not to score when his shot from the edge of the box bounced out off the underside of the bar, and he looks ready to make an impact.
4. David Silva (Spain)
Silva provided the delivery for Costa’s second goal, and showed his class in combining well with the rest of the midfield. He managed to work into dangerous positions, and he was as sharp as ever on the ball. With his expert touch and scarily effective combination with his teammates in attacking midfield Silva caused plenty of problems for the Portuguese.
5. William Carvalho (Portugal)
William is the unsung hero of Portugal’s team, providing a steadying hand in the middle of the park and doing good work supporting the defence. He was in good form again against the Spanish, always finding himself in the right spot and winning plenty of the ball as a result. He was nowhere near their most flashy player, but he did his job well.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group B

Group B

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Portugal (4), Spain (10), Morocco (41), Iran (37)
Fixtures:
Morocco vs Iran, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Portugal vs Spain, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
Portugal vs Morocco, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Iran vs Spain, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Iran vs Portugal, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Spain vs Morocco, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad

Portugal

Head Coach: Fernando Santos
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
Previous Appearances: 6 (1966, 1986, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Third Place (1966)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Cristiano Ronaldo (15)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Rui Patricio (Sporting), 12. Anthony Lopes (Lyon), 22. Beto (Göztepe).
Defenders: 2. Bruno Alves (Rangers), 3. Pepe (Beşiktaş), 5. Raphaël Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), 6. José Fonte (Dalian Yifang), 13. Rúben Dias (Benfica), 15. Ricardo Pereira (Porto), 19. Mário Rui (Napoli), 21. Cédric (Southampton).
Midfielders: 4. Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv Moscow), 8. João Moutinho (Monaco), 10. João Mário (West Ham United), 14. William Carvalho (Sporting), 16. Bruno Fernandes (Sporting), 23. Adrien Silva (Leicester City).
Forwards: 7. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), 9. André Silva (Milan), 11. Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), 17. Gonçalo Guedes (Valencia), 18. Gelson Martins (Sporting), 20. Ricardo Quaresma (Beşiktaş).

Portugal only sealed their spot in Russia on the final day of qualifying, beating Switzerland 2-0 and leapfrogging them to take out first place in the group. Portugal’s nine-match qualifying win streak (after losing their first game) came on the back of victory at Euro 2016, their biggest footballing achievement. The defensive solidity they showed in winning the Euros was a change from Portuguese teams of years gone by, and in Cristiano Ronaldo they can rely on a striker who knows how to find the back of the net. Since their triumph at Euro 2016, Ronaldo has been joined up front by young star André Silva, and the pair’s combined 24 goals in qualifying should sound a warning to opponents at the World Cup. Around the ground, the core group of players who won the Euros are mostly intact. João Mário, William Carvalho and Adrien Silva are versatile midfield options who will combine well, and newcomers Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva are both talented players. Pepe will lead a defence that conceded just four goals in qualifying, and Portugal can rely on his experience and quality in Russia. In goal, Rui Patricio is one of the best in the business, making Portugal a very tough team to beat.

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Cristiano Ronaldo lifts the trophy as Portugal celebrate their victory at Euro 2016. Portugal had not won a major tournament before the Euros, despite a number of near-misses.

The Euro 2016 victory, however, cannot obscure some of the issues with the Portuguese team. When Ronaldo isn’t playing well Portugal tend to lose, and this over-reliance on him could prove problematic against top-level sides. Ronaldo and André Silva may have been dominant in qualifying, but a dearth of quality back-up options meant that just 8 goals were scored by their teammates. There is also a lack of quality providers within the side, especially with veteran Ricardo Quaresma being deployed as an impact player off the bench. The defence is basically the same as it was at Euro 2016, but centre-backs Pepe (35), Bruno Alves (36) and José Fonte (34) are all two years older and past their respective primes. With left-back Raphaël Guerreiro struggling to get on the pitch due to injuries and other key players in João Mário and Adrien Silva coming off poor individual seasons, the Portuguese are not as strong as they were two years ago and could be vulnerable.

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is arguably the best player in world football right now, and his record for both club and country is exemplary. He is a five time winner of the Ballon d’Or, and his ability to find the back of the net is almost unparalleled. He is fast and skilful, and his ability to score in the air was shown by his remarkable bicycle kick goal in the Champions League against Juventus. He has provided Portugal with a reliable outlet for years, and he is likely to continue in Russia.

Key Player: Pepe

Ronaldo is the undisputed star of the Portuguese team, but Pepe is arguably just as important. The combative centre-back has collected 91 caps since making his debut in 2007, and was one of Portugal’s best performers as they won the Euros. He will reprise his role as the anchor of the defence in Russia, and his performances will play a big role in dictating Portugal’s finish.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (right) and André Silva celebrate after Ronaldo’s goal against Andorra during qualifying. Ronaldo and Silva formed a devastating partnership in the qualifiers, netting 24 goals between them.

One to watch: André Silva

Silva made his international debut in Portugal’s first match after Euro 2016 (an insignificant friendly against Gibraltar), and it didn’t take him long to strike up a formidable partnership with Ronaldo. He has since moved to Milan, and after a poor first season with the Italian giants he will be looking to showcase his immense talent with some strong performances in Russia. He has the skills to make a huge mark.

Verdict

Fernando Santos has instilled some solidity into his charges, and with Ronaldo and Silva at one end and Pepe and Patricio at the other Portugal will be a very tough customer. They could win it all, if the rest of their team steps up.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Rui Patricio; Cédric, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva, João Mário; André Silva, Ronaldo.

Spain

Head Coach: Julen Lopetegui
Captain: Sergio Ramos
Previous Appearances: 14 (1934, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (2010)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Diego Costa, Isco, Álvaro Morata, David Silva (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. David de Gea (Manchester United), 13. Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao), 23. Pepe Reina (Napoli).
Defenders: 2. Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), 3. Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), 4. Nacho (Real Madrid), 12. Álvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), 14. César Azpilicueta (Chelsea), 15. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), 16. Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), 18. Jordi Alba (Barcelona).
Midfielders: 5. Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), 6. Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), 7. Saúl Ñiguez (Atlético Madrid), 8. Koke (Atlético Madrid), 10. Thiago (Bayern Munich), 20. Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), 21. David Silva (Manchester City), 22. Isco (Real Madrid).
Forwards: 9. Rodrigo (Valencia), 11. Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), 17. Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid), 19. Diego Costa (Atlético Madrid).

After a disastrous performance at the last World Cup and an underwhelming effort at Euro 2016, there’s a lot to like about this Spanish side heading into the World Cup. New coach Julen Lopetegui led his side through a flawless qualifying campaign, and their previously ageing core has been rejuvenated with some fresh talent. In goal, David de Gea has been solid as a rock, conceding just 3 times in qualifying. He will be well protected by the experienced defensive pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué, while full-backs Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal are capable in both attack and defence. Spain’s real strength, however, comes from a midfield that oozes quality. Andrés Iniesta is a legend of the game, and although this is almost certainly his last World Cup he is still capable of performing at the highest level. Alongside Iniesta, Lopetegui can call on quality creators in Koke, David Silva and Isco, and Sergio Busquets is a holding midfielder who can tie any side together. Spain’s silky smooth passing is likely to be a feature of their play, and it should make them a formidable opponent.

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Isco scores from a free kick in a World Cup qualifier against Italy. Isco was one of Spain’s equal top-scorers during qualifying, and knows how to find the back of the net from midfield.

On the flip side, the Spanish are still plagued by their lack of a genuine target up front, which can make it difficult for them to translate their possession into goals. All of their midfielders are capable of finding their way onto the scoresheet, which is a bonus, but no player scored more than five goals in qualifying and it’s not clear who they will look to when in desperate need of a goal. Diego Costa is likely to get the first run, and Iago Aspas, Rodrigo and young gun Marco Asensio provide options, but none of them are proven goal-scorers at international level, a fact which could prove problematic. The Spanish are favoured to go a long way in Russia, but the same thing has been said at their last two major tournaments, and they have underwhelmed with little explanation why. If they are to make a deep run, Lopetegui will need to get his side performing at their peak.

Star Player: David de Gea

There are any number of very good midfielders who could fill this space, but de Gea is a more integral part of Spain’s team. He has been named in the Premier League’s Team of the Year five times in the last six seasons, and he holds a very strong claim to the title of best goalkeeper in the world. His ability to pull off extraordinary saves and keep out the best in the world will give Spain plenty of confidence.

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Sergio Ramos attempts to control the ball during Euro 2016. Ramos is not the prettiest player going around, but he is a very effective defender who has enjoyed plenty of success.

Key Player: Sergio Ramos

Ramos is not a particularly pretty footballer. He is a very physical defender who often dives for free kicks and has been in hot water for a number of incidents. Basically, he is the antithesis of Spain’s beautiful possession game. He is, however, the counterpoint Spain need, marshalling the defence and occasionally popping up to score big goals in big games. He knows how to stand up in big moments, and importantly for Spain, he knows how to win.

One to watch: Marco Asensio

Asensio has the potential to become one of the world’s best, and at just 22 his best years are still ahead of him. He has established himself as an impact player within the Real Madrid set-up, and is likely to be used in the same capacity in Russia. His versatility means he may well be called upon to solve Spain’s problems in attack, and he is a quality player who will be exciting to watch.

Verdict

Spain’s side looks unstoppable on paper, but the pressure of a World Cup is another thing entirely. It’s hard to see how they will fail to progress from the group stage, and they look like they can go a long way.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Carvajal, Ramos, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Koke; David Silva, Isco, Iniesta; Diego Costa.

Morocco

Head Coach: Hervé Renard
Captain: Medhi Benatia
Previous Appearances: 4 (1970, 1986, 1994, 1998)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1986)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group C
Qualification Top Scorer: Khalid Boutaïb (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Yassine Bounou (Girona), 12. Munir Mohamedi (Numancia), 22. Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti (IR Tanger).
Defenders: 2. Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), 3. Hamza Mendyl (Lille), 4. Manuel da Costa (İstanbul Başakşehir), 5. Medhi Benatia (Juventus), 6. Romain Saïss (Wolverhampton Wanderers), 17. Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahçe).
Midfielders: 7. Hakim Ziyech (Ajax), 8. Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), 10. Younès Belhanda (Galatasaray), 11. Fayçal Fajr (Getafe), 14. Mbark Boussoufa (Al-Jazira), 15. Youssef Aït Bennasser (Caen), 16. Nordin Amrabat (Leganés), 18. Amine Harit (Schalke), 21. Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), 23. Mehdi Carcela-González (Standard Liège).
Forwards: 9. Ayoub El Kaabi (RS Berkane), 13. Khalid Boutaïb (Yeni Malatyaspor), 19. Youssef En-Nesyri (Málaga), 20. Aziz Bouhaddouz (St Pauli).

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Hervé Renard congratulates experienced midfielder Karim El Ahmadi during a friendly against the Netherlands. Renard has transformed the Atlas Lions since taking over in 2016, having previously enjoyed success with Zambia and the Côte d’Ivoire.

Morocco’s first World Cup qualification since 1998 was based on a stellar defensive record (they conceded no goals in the final group stage) and a 2-0 final day win to qualify at the expense of the Côte d’Ivoire. Hervé Renard is a highly-respected coach who has helped a previously faltering team unearth its potential, and Morocco have the defensive steel required to spring an upset. Romain Saïss’ move from the midfield into central defence has allowed him to form an excellent partnership with Juventus’ Medhi Benatia, and Real Madrid young gun Achraf Hakimi has the ability to play on either side of the defence as required. In Karim El Ahmadi and Mbark Boussoufa, Renard has a pair of experienced and skilled central midfielders. Younès Belhanda, Fayçal Fajr, Nordin Amrabat and Sofyan Amrabat can all complement the creative abilities of Hakim Ziyech to provide plenty of chances. Ziyech has the potential to be a big surprise packet in Russia, and his quality is undisputed.

Morocco’s biggest problems come from the draw which placed them alongside European powerhouses Spain and Portugal. As good as their team spirit may be, their players are no match for some of their opponents, and they could find their issues exposed. First-choice goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi played just one game for second-tier Spanish side Numancia over the course of this season, and he could struggle given his lack of game time. They may struggle for goals given the lack of a top-quality target, although Khalid Boutaïb has found some form in recent times. Their experienced players in defence and midfield are a strength, but many key players are past their primes. Against more skilful opponents Renard’s men may find it difficult to keep control of the ball, and if they are playing with their backs to the wall they may find it tough. All of this will combine to ensure the Atlas Lions will be in for a very tough fight as they look to beat the odds in Russia.

Star Player: Hakim Ziyech

Ziyech could have been a Dutch representative instead of a Moroccan one, and Renard will be counting his lucky stars that he inherited a squad with the talented playmaker. Ziyech can play anywhere behind the sole striker, and he is a technically skilled player who can create chances and find the back of the net himself. He has been one of the best players in the Dutch league for some time, and will be a key part of Morocco’s campaign.

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Hakim Ziyech takes on an opponent during an African Cup of Nations qualifier against São Tomé and Príncipe. Ziyech will be a key part of Morocco’s plans at the World Cup. 

Key Player: Medhi Benatia

Benatia is Morocco’s most experienced defender, having played for European giants Bayern Munich and Juventus among others. This experience playing with and against the world’s best will be invaluable for Renard’s side, and Benatia’s leadership and quality defensive work will be incredibly important if the Atlas Lions are going to make it out of a tough group.

One to watch: Achraf Hakimi

Hakimi is a versatile full-back who will be looking to make his mark coming off a promising campaign with Real Madrid. He is likely to play right-back for the Atlas Lions in Russia, but the 19-year-old is equally capable on the left and can make an impact going forward. He is one of Morocco’s biggest talents, and his experiences playing with the world’s best should serve him well.

Verdict

It would take a miracle for Morocco to progress past the group stage, but Renard’s determined unit cannot be underestimated and could be a tough opponent. If they get through they could do some damage.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Munir Mohamedi; Hakimi, Benatia, Saïss, Mendyl; El Ahmadi, Boussoufa; N Amrabat, Belhanda, Ziyech; Boutaïb.

Iran

Head Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Masoud Shojaei
Previous Appearances: 4 (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
Qualified: AFC, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Sardar Azmoun (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), 12. Mohammad Rashid Mazahedi (Zob Ahan), 22. Amir Abedzadeh (Marítimo).
Defenders: 4. Rouzbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal), 5. Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), 8. Morteza Pouraliganji (Al-Sadd), 13. Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), 15. Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), 19. Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), 23. Ramin Rezaeian (Oostende).
Midfielders: 2. Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), 3. Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos), 6. Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), 7. Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), 9. Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), 11. Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), 21. Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest).
Forwards: 10. Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos), 14. Saman Ghoddos (Östersund), 16. Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), 17. Mehdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa), 18. Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ), 20. Sardar Azmoun (Rostov).

If they hadn’t been drawn into a group with Portugal and Spain, the Iranians would go into this tournament feeling confident. As it stands, Iran are not likely to make it to the knockout stages for the first time in their history, but they will field a strong side. The Iranians built their comfortable qualification around defensive frugality, conceding just twice in the final stage of Asian qualifying. It is their attack, however, which has seen the most improvement since their failed World Cup campaign four years ago. Alireza Jahanbakhsh was the leading goal-scorer in the Netherlands this season, and Sardar Azmoun has regularly found the back of the net in national colours. Saman Ghoddos, Mehdi Taremi and Karim Ansarifard have all enjoyed stellar seasons, but such is Iran’s attacking depth that at least one of them will miss out on a spot in the starting line-up. Down back, Carlos Queiroz can call on some quality defenders, and goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand is a solid presence. Iran have plenty of experience, which should serve them well.

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Morteza Pouraliganji chases the ball during Iran’s World Cup qualifying match against South Korea. Pouraliganji was a key part of Iran’s solid defence in qualifying.

Unfortunately for Queiroz, Iran’s tough draw makes progress from the group stage unlikely. The teams they will face in Russia are a big step up from the teams they comfortably saw off in qualifying, and their disciplined defence will face a much sterner test. That they will be facing it without the experience of Jalal Hosseini, who failed to make the cut, only makes their task harder. Iran’s attack has improved in both depth and quality, but for all their talent they only managed 10 goals in the final 10 games of qualifying. Azmoun is the only member of the side who has regularly performed at an international level, and Queiroz will be relying on Jahanbakhsh and others to fulfil their potential for their country. The midfield is not as strong as it could be, especially with an injury to Ali Karimi, and the Iranians will need to be careful to avoid being dominated in the middle of the park.

Star Player: Sardar Azmoun

Jahanbakhsh could be considered the star after his breakout season in Europe, but Azmoun’s performances for Iran since making his debut in 2014 have placed him at the forefront of the national team’s success. He has aerial ability and skill, and in his brief forays into the Champions League with Rostov he matched up well against top-level competition. He is a class player, and Iran will hope he can show it.

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Alireza Jahanbakhsh (left), Sardar Azmoun (centre) and Mehdi Taremi celebrate after Taremi’s qualifying goal against Qatar. The three forwards are just some of the attacking options Iran have at their disposal, and Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh’s input will be especially important.

Key Player: Ashkan Dejagah

Iran have plenty of attacking weapons at their disposal, but such talent is meaningless if they get no supply. That’s where Dejagah, an experienced player who has featured in the Bundesliga and the Premier League, steps in. He has been hampered by injuries in the last couple of seasons, but if Iran are to progress he will need to create plenty of opportunities from the space behind Azmoun.

One to watch: Saman Ghoddos

Ghoddos was born and raised in Sweden, and even made his international debut for the Swedish national team before deciding to play for Iran. He has plenty of talent and skill, and attracted the attention of a number of English clubs with a brilliant performance against Arsenal in the Europa League knockouts. Facing the best after the anonymity of the Swedish league will be a challenge, but he could make an impact.

Verdict

Iran have gained some quality attacking talent, but they will need to turn that into goals against tough opposition if they are to progress. It’s an uphill battle for Queiroz, and his side will need to play out of their skin.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Beiranvand; Rezaiean, Montazeri, Pouraliganji, Mohammadi; Hajsafi, Shojaei; Jahanbakhsh, Dejagah, Ghoddos; Azmoun.

Prediction

This group seems open-and-shut: the Spanish and the Portuguese simply have too much quality for Morocco and Iran. That may well be the case, but games within the group, such as the hotly-anticipated clash between Iberian rivals Portugal and Spain, could be very competitive Furthermore, it would not be beyond either the Moroccans or the Iranians to pinch a couple of points and make things very interesting. Portugal seem especially vulnerable heading into Russia, and a well-organised team (as all in this group are) could just sneak past them.
1. Spain, 2. Portugal, 3. Morocco, 4. Iran

Eder strike sinks France as Portugal claim title

In the six games leading up to the final of Euro 2016 the Portuguese had barely used Eder. The big striker had spent thirteen minutes on the pitch at the tournament, with two substitute appearances the sum total of his contribution to Portugal’s run to the final. In the four matches before the final he had been an unused substitute, watching on as his teammates did the work. But in the final he got his chance, and he cemented a very special place in history by scoring the goal which delivered Portugal their first ever victory at a major tournament.

The Lille frontman came on with around ten minutes remaining in normal time, with the score tied at 0-0. He made an impact almost immediately, using his height and strength to great advantage as he won plenty of free kicks in dangerous positions. He was the player Portugal needed in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, the side’s captain, talisman and best player. Ronaldo was the hard luck story of the final, injured early on following a tackle by Dimitri Payet and unable to continue. He left on a stretcher after a valiant attempt to play out the match, crying in despair as he was carried down the race. The injury had left Portugal without a strong aerial option, a void which Eder could easily fill.

The French were strong favourites to lift the trophy in front of their home fans, and in the early stages they began to assert their authority. Antoine Griezmann, already a shoo-in for the golden boot with six goals, looked dangerous early and continually found himself in good positions. He could have had a seventh when he was in a perfect position to receive Payet’s nonchalant ball over the top, but Portugal survived. The header was perfectly placed, and had Rui Patricio failed to tip it over the bar it would have found its way into the top corner.

As the game wore on, the French became less threatening. They were still very confident, but they were content to pass the ball around the back and never really looked like penetrating the organised Portuguese front. France were not able to get their stars involved in the game, and while Moussa Sissoko looked very dangerous his contemporaries did not. They continued to pass the ball around the back, and in doing so they allowed Portugal to gain a solid foothold in the match.

The first half ended without much goalmouth activity, and the second half did not bring about a noticeable change in energy. Neither side was really injecting much pace into the game, and neither side was willing to take a chance. The French were on top of possession, but they were not using it effectively and were unable to pressure the Portuguese defence. Griezmann should have scored after he received a perfect cross from Kingsley Coman, but the header was just over the bar. The game remained scoreless.

As the second half drew to a close the game was still level, and neither side really looked like clinching it. Portugal had a great opportunity after Nani’s cross was palmed away by Hugo Lloris in the direction of Ricardo Quaresma, but the bicycle kick, while impressive, was ineffective. France had some great chances as the half drew to a close, and Andre-Pierre Gignac should have scored in injury time after he beat Pepe in the box to find the ball in an excellent position. His shot ran through Patricio’s legs as it made its way towards the goal, but it rebounded off the post and bounced past Griezmann, who was unable to retrieve it in time. The Portuguese cleared, and extra time was inevitable.

Eder started to find his feet in the first period of extra time, getting into good positions and using his physical superiority over the French defence to win plenty of the ball and plenty of fouls. He had a great chance as the half came to a close, with a close range header from Quaresma’s corner forcing Lloris to make an excellent save. The Portuguese had finished the first half of extra time on top, and they were able to turn that into something tangible just after the break. Raphael Guerreiro came close early on when he hit the underside of the bar with his free kick, and the goal followed moments later.

Eder took three fairly clumsy touches to control the ball when he received it outside the box. He had played well after replacing 18-year-old wunderkind Renato Sanches, but nothing he had done in half an hour on the pitch suggested what was about to happen next. He shot from range, placing the ball into the bottom corner with plenty of power. It was too much for Lloris, who was unable to reach it as it buried itself in the back of the net.

Eder’s goal left France in a state of panic, and they tried in vain to play at a faster pace. They were too young and inexperienced, and they did not have the presence of mind that they needed to overcome the deficit. The Portuguese were content to waste time whenever they were given the chance, and they looked in complete control as they held the hosts at bay. For the first time this tournament France did not have an answer, and Portugal were the ones left celebrating after clinging on to hoist the trophy at the Stade de France.

Saint-Denis – Stade de France
Portugal 1 (Eder 109)
France 0 (a.e.t)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Portugal (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Pepe, Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro; William Carvalho; Renato Sanches (Eder 79), Adrien Silva (Joao Moutinho 66), Joao Mario; Nani, Ronaldo (Quaresma 25).
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Sagna, Koscielny, Umtiti, Evra; Pogba, Matuidi; Sissoko (Martial 110), Griezmann, Payet (Coman 58); Giroud (Gignac 78).

UEFA Euro 2016 Final Preview – Portugal vs France

Portugal vs France, Stade de France, Saint-Denis


Road to the final

Portugal

Portugal 1 (Nani 31), Iceland 1 (B Bjarnason 50)
Portugal 0, Austria 0
Hungary 3 (Gera 19, Dzsudzsak 47, 55), Portugal 3 (Nani 42, Ronaldo 50, 62)
Croatia 0, Portugal 1 (Quaresma 117)
Poland 1 (Lewandowski 2), Portugal 1 (Renato Sanches 33) (a.e.t, Portugal won 5-3 on penalties)
Portugal 2 (Ronaldo 50, Nani 53), Wales 0

France

France 2 (Giroud 57, Payet 89), Romania 1 (Stancu 65 pen)
France 2 (Griezmann 90, Payet 90+6), Albania 0
Switzerland 0, France 0
France 2 (Griezmann 58, 61), Republic of Ireland 1 (Brady 2 pen)
France 5 (Giroud 12, 59, Pogba 20, Payet 43, Griezmann 45), Iceland 2 (Sigthorsson 56, B Bjarnason 84)
Germany 0, France 2 (Griezmann 45+2 pen, 72)

Top Scorers

Portugal

3 – Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo.
1 – Ricardo Quaresma, Renato Sanches.

France

6 – Antoine Griezmann.
3 – Olivier Giroud, Dimitri Payet.
1 – Paul Pogba.

Team News

Portugal

Pepe missed the game against Wales with a thigh injury, and while he is still in doubt he is likely to start in the final. William Carvalho is also set to return after he was suspended for the semi-final, with Danilo most likely to make way in the centre of midfield.
Likely team (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Pepe, Jose Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro; William Carvalho; Joao Mario, Renato Sanches, Adrien Silva; Nani, Ronaldo.

France

The French have been in strong form throughout the knockout stages, and Didier Deschamps is unlikely to make any changes to the team that beat Germany 2-0. They have no injuries or suspensions to deal with, and they will be hard to beat.
Likely team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Sagna, Koscielny, Umtiti, Evra; Pogba, Matuidi; Sissoko, Griezmann, Payet; Giroud.

Key Duels

William Carvalho vs Antoine Griezmann

Griezmann is almost certain to claim the golden boot after scoring a brace against Germany in the semi-finals, and the Atletico Madrid star will look to be at his best again in the final. He has been incredibly effective playing in between attack and midfield, where he has been able to find plenty of space and has been able to attack at great pace. Griezmann has become the life of the French attack, and if Portugal are to win Carvalho will need to reduce his impact by restricting the space that he has to work with.

Renato Sanches vs Paul Pogba

The game could well hinge on this match-up. Sanches has been a revelation at this tournament, and in the final he will come up against Pogba, who is one of the best players in the world. Sanches is strong and pacy, and he has developed into one of Portugal’s biggest individual threats. Pogba will look to deny him the ball and will look to force him into defensive positions where he cannot make an impact on the break. For his part, Sanches will need to put plenty of pressure on Pogba, and he will try to find plenty of the ball.

Pepe/Jose Fonte vs Olivier Giroud

Giroud has been in excellent form throughout the tournament, and he can beat most players in the air. The Portuguese centre backs will be left with the difficult task of containing the Arsenal frontman, who has provided plenty of chances for Griezmann and Dimitri Payet with his ability to play the ball past the defence into open space. Both Pepe and Fonte will need to match him in the air, and they will look to keep him out of the game by removing him from the contest.

Joao Mario vs Patrice Evra/Bacary Sagna

Portugal tend to run most of their play through Mario, who roams around behind Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo and attempts to set up chances. He is not the most effective crosser, but he has been given plenty of space throughout the tournament and he consistently finds the ball in dangerous positions. Sagna and Evra will need to be at their best to ensure that Mario does not have a big impact on the match, and they will attempt to do this by closing off the space he has at his disposal. If the French can shut down Mario life will be very difficult for the Portuguese, who use him in almost all of their attacks.

Tactics

Portugal

The Portuguese will look to control possession and deny France the opportunity to involve Griezmann, Payet and Giroud. They tend to attack slowly while using plenty of width, and they are likely to put in plenty of crosses against the French. Nani and Ronaldo will be given plenty of freedom, and they could cause plenty of issues for the French defence.
Read my pre-tournament assessment of Portugal here

France

The French like to stay in control, and they will be content to play the ball around the midfield and keep it away from the Portuguese. They will look to do this to gain more space for Griezmann and Payet, who attack quickly and skilfully. Giroud will look to provide plenty of opportunities with his ability to hold up play, and the French will be comfortable to play on the counter-attack.
Read what I wrote about France pre-tournament here

Prediction

This game will be a good one, and in the end the team that can control the midfield will probably lift the trophy. The French pairing of Pogba and Blaise Matuidi are more experienced and stronger, and they should be able to play the game on their terms. Payet, Griezmann and Giroud form an incredibly dangerous combination, and they could well prove the difference between the sides. France 2-0.

Portugal outclass directionless Wales

Cristiano Ronaldo rose over Neil Taylor to meet Joao Mario’s looping cross. The ball had come in high, passing over most of the bodies who had amassed in the box and leaving Ronaldo with a perfect match-up at the back post. The Portuguese star had already played a strong game, but he was about to leave his mark on the match. His header into the top corner was just the beginning, and it kicked off a short period which booked Portugal’s spot in the final of Euro 2016.

Over the course of a few minutes Ronaldo transformed the semi-final between Portugal and Wales from an enticing contest into a foregone conclusion. The Portuguese captain scored and provided an assist to put the Welsh two goals down and out of contention. They recovered from a group stage defeat against England, and they recovered after going behind against Belgium, but they would not recover from this. It was over.

Ronaldo’s goal put all the pressure back on the Welsh, and minutes later he provided the sucker punch. This time Ronaldo was the creator, even if he did not intend to be. The Portuguese moved forward in numbers as they looked to counter-attack, and Ronaldo found himself in a good position to shoot. The effort was straight at Wayne Hennessey, but Nani was there and he deflected the shot past the Welsh keeper into the back of the net. The ball rolled over the line, and with it went Wales’ hopes of playing in their first ever major tournament final.

In truth, the Welsh were playing from behind right from the word go due to the unfair suspension of Aaron Ramsey, the player who linked everything together for them. Joe Allen looked lost, Ashley Williams had no-one to pass to and Gareth Bale seemed to be responsible for both setting up goals and scoring them. Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t do both at the same time.

Portugal were on top from the start, but the Welsh were well organised defensively and were not letting anything through. James Collins had Ronaldo covered, and Bale looked more dangerous than the Portuguese despite his relative lack of possession. He looked quick, explosive and powerful. He looked too good for Portugal. He looked too good for anyone. If only he had more of the ball.

The first half passed without too much action, with Bale providing most of the exciting moments. He provided the highlight of the half when he ran 70 metres down the right wing with an explosive burst of pace, but it came to nothing when his shot was drilled at Rui Patricio, who made the easy save. Then the second half began with Portugal’s rapid-fire goals, and the game was all but over.

Bale was working harder than anyone else on the pitch, but he couldn’t do it. He challenged Patricio with powerful long shots and created some great chances which he himself would have converted. He was good enough to penetrate the Portuguese defence, but Sam Vokes and Simon Church were not and he was needed elsewhere. The game trundled on towards its inevitable conclusion until Jonas Eriksson blew his whistle to signal a thoroughly deserved win for the Portuguese. They were more organised, more skilful and more composed, and they have a great chance of winning Euro 2016.

Lyon – Parc Olympique Lyonnais
Portugal 2 (Ronaldo 50, Nani 53)
Wales 0
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (Swe)

Portugal (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Bruno Alves, Jose Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro; Danilo; Joao Mario, Renato Sanches (Andre Gomes 74), Adrien Silva (Joao Moutinho 79); Nani (Quaresma 86), Ronaldo.
Wales (5-3-2): Hennessey – Gunter, Chester, Collins (J Williams 66), A Williams, Taylor; Allen, Ledley (Vokes 58), King; Robson-Kanu (Church 63), Bale.

Top 5
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo had an excellent game up front, getting himself involved in the action and looking dangerous throughout. The Portuguese captain scored one goal and set up the other, and was the best player on the ground. He was at the top of his game and will be a massive threat in the final.
2. Gareth Bale (Wales)
Bale worked very hard up front and caused plenty of problems for the Portuguese with his mobility and explosive pace. He never gave up and was still a threat when the final whistle blew. He had an excellent game and can hold his head high.
3. Joao Mario (Portugal)
Mario was poor against Croatia and Poland but he was back at his best against Wales. He was clinical in his ball use and he made plenty of dangerous runs. He assisted Ronaldo’s goal and was continually getting into dangerous positions in attack, nearly scoring on a couple of occasions.
4. James Collins (Wales)
Collins was responsible for shutting down Ronaldo early on, and he did a fairly good job. He was never beaten in the air and he was able to shut down plenty of Portuguese attacks. He was substituted in the second half as Wales looked to come back, but he played well and can take some comfort from his performance.
5. Nani (Portugal)
Nani scored Portugal’s second goal with a clever deflection, and he complemented Ronaldo well in attack. He caused plenty of issues for the Welsh with his pace and ability to get into dangerous positions, and he was one of the best players on the field.

UEFA Euro 2016 Knockout Stage Preview – Wales vs Portugal

Wales vs Portugal, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon


Match Log

Wales

Wales 2 (Bale 10, Robson-Kanu 81), Slovakia 1 (Duda 61)
England 2 (Vardy 56, Sturridge 90+2), Wales 1 (Bale 42)
Russia 0, Wales 3 (Ramsey 11, Taylor 20, Bale 67)
Wales 1 (McAuley 75 og), Northern Ireland 0
Wales 3 (A Williams 31, Robson-Kanu 55, Vokes 86), Belgium 1 (Nainggolan 13)

Portugal

Portugal 1 (Nani 31), Iceland 1 (B Bjarnason 50)
Portugal 0, Austria 0
Hungary 3 (Gera 19, Dzsudzsak 47, 55), Portugal 3 (Nani 42, Ronaldo 50, 62)
Croatia 0, Portugal 1 (Quaresma 117) (a.e.t)
Poland 1 (Lewandowski 2), Portugal 1 (Renato Sanches 33) (a.e.t, Portugal won 5-3 on penalties)

Top Scorers

Wales

3 – Gareth Bale.
2 – Hal Robson-Kanu.
1 – Aaron Ramsey, Neil Taylor, Sam Vokes, Ashley Williams.

Portugal

2 – Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo.
1 – Ricardo Quaresma, Renato Sanches.

Team News

Wales

Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies picked up suspensions in the win over Belgium, and both of them will have to be replaced. Davies can be easily replaced by James Collins, but greater issues surround Ramsey, who dominated against Belgium and is in great touch. Jonathan Williams and Andy King are in line to replace him, and it is unclear which one Chris Coleman will pick. Hal Robson-Kanu had an excellent game after replacing Sam Vokes and should keep his spot.
Likely team (3-5-2): Hennessey – Chester, A Williams, Collins; Gunter, Allen, Ledley, J Williams, Taylor; Robson-Kanu, Bale.

Portugal

William Carvalho is suspended, and his place in the centre of the park is likely to be taken by Danilo. The other concern for Fernando Santos surrounds Pepe, who is in doubt with a thigh complaint. If he fails to get up then Ricardo Carvalho should regain his place and partner Jose Fonte in the centre of defence. Raphael Guerreiro and Andre Gomes have returned from injury and could retake their places in the starting line-up.
Likely team (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Pepe, Jose Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro; Danilo; Joao Mario, Renato Sanches, Adrien Silva; Nani, Ronaldo.

Keys to success

Wales

With Ramsey out suspended Gareth Bale and Joe Allen will have to step up to replace the Arsenal star, who has been in top form at this tournament. The defence will need to hold firm against a Portuguese side with plenty of attacking talent, and they will look to exploit the Portuguese on the break when they go forward. Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor have big roles to play in both defence and attack, and both Robson-Kanu and Bale will be expecting good delivery from the wing-backs.

Portugal

The Portuguese have been lucky to make it this far and they will need to markedly improve if they are to beat the Welsh. Their delivery for Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo has been abysmal, and if they are to win they need to be much better at translating possession into goals. Ronaldo was silent against Croatia in the round of 16, and while he sparked up against Poland he was unable to take any of the brilliant opportunities that were handed to him. He will need to improve, and fast.

Prediction

Wales are missing one of their star players in Ramsey, but they still have enough talent about them to do well. The Portuguese are in need of improvement after poor efforts against Croatia and Poland, but all signs suggest that they are unlikely to change. Wales 2-1.