MOSCOW — All that is wonderful and rotten about the World Cup surfaced at sold-out Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday.
We’ll begin with the good, because that is why people traveled great distances and are spending stacks of rubles to attend. It’s why hundreds of millions around the blue planet will watch on various electronic devices at all hours for four weeks.
Goodness was on display before four minutes had transpired in the Portugal-Morocco match as that handsome devil, Cristiano Ronaldo, continued his hellacious start to this tournament by ditching a defender and nodding a cross into the net.
His fourth goal in two games stood up, but just barely, as Portugal dodged one threat after another before escaping with a 1-0 victory.
With four points, the European champions are on the cusp of a round-of-16 berth out of Group B — and a possible showdown with goal-happy Russia.
“If we lost, we could be out,” Ronaldo said. Instead, “we’re almost there.”
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Now the bad: Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, the disgraced former president of FIFA, soccer’s tainted governing body, arrived in Russia to attend two matches this week.
In doing so, he has cast a shadow over a cheery tournament and rekindled dark memories of a corruption scandal that paralyzed the sport three years ago and resulted in numerous federal indictments.
Found guilty by FIFA of financial misconduct, Blatter, 82, is banned from serving in the sport for another 3½ years. Nothing, however, prevents him from buying a ticket or accepting an invitation to watch in a VIP area. In this case, the latter applied.
Who would invite him? Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Blatter had helped steer support for Russia’s World Cup bid which, like Qatar’s victory in the race to host the 2022 tournament, was marred by bribe allegations. (Putin did not attend Wednesday.)
Blatter’s name wasn’t on the official list of VIPs in attendance, issued by FIFA at kickoff. While Gianni Infantino, Blatter’s successor, watched from FIFA’s suite, Blatter was elsewhere on the luxury level. He also plans to attend the Brazil-Costa Rica affair Friday in St. Petersburg.
Attempting to rehabilitate his career — and perhaps troll the current FIFA leadership — he has agreed to several interviews, signed autographs and posed for photographs. FIFA hasn’t commented on his presence.
Okay, back to the match. Ronaldo provided the lead on a six-yard header, his 85th goal (in 152 appearances) to set European soccer’s all-time scoring record in international matches. He had been tied with Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas (84 in 85 matches from 1945 to ’56).
Bernardo Silva played a short corner to Joao Moutinho, who whipped a cross to the edge of the six-yard box. Manuel da Costa lost track of Ronaldo, a blunder that, given the distance, was deadly.
A day earlier, Morocco Coach Herve Renard said his team must make Ronaldo “less exceptional.” It failed.
After the match, Renard said, “The most gifted players are the ones who make all the difference.”
Aside from Portugal’s opponents, Ronaldo is locked in an unofficial competition with his fellow megastar, Argentina’s Lionel Messi. So far, it’s a blowout. The Real Madrid forward leads the tournament in goals; Messi missed a penalty and was largely contained by Iceland on Saturday.
“He’s like a fine port wine,” Portugal Coach Fernando Santos said of his 33-year-old ace. “He knows how to refine his game. He is constantly evolving. He knows what he can do. He knows himself and he knows how to improve himself.”
Ronaldo’s four goals have come on a goalkeeping miscue, a penalty kick, an outrageous free kick and now a header. He had scored one goal in each of his previous three World Cups.
Renard thought the goal should’ve been disallowed because Portuguese defender Pepe wiped out a Moroccan player away from the ball. “Have a good look [at replays] and look at what [Pepe] is doing,” he said to a room full of reporters. “And write the truth.”
Santos countered by saying: “The first foul was really the Morocco player. And then Pepe defended himself.”
U.S. referee Mark Geiger had no issues and let the goal stand.
Portugal’s lead was not airtight, by any means. Morocco forced the issue and generated numerous opportunities, which were undermined by wayward shooting and Rui Patricio’s goalkeeping.
Back to Ronaldo: There are few moments in soccer, perhaps in all of sport, that crackle with anticipation more than those few seconds before he strikes a free kick.
In the 32nd minute, with a free kick from 21 yards, Ronaldo looked to repeat the sensational set piece from the dying moments of Friday’s 3-3 draw with Spain. This time, he pounded it into the wall. (The same thing occurred in the dying moments of the match.)
There were other opportunities to put away the match and grow his scoring total. Early in the second half, he ran onto a rolling ball inside the penalty area and lined up a thunderous shot that would surely send Morocco to the brink of defeat. His effort sailed deep into the Moroccan supporters’ section.
Nonetheless, Ronaldo ruled the day again — no matter how hard Blatter tried.
— Steven Goff
Portugal: vs. Iran in Saransk, June 25, 2 p.m.
Morocco: vs. Spain in Kaliningrad, June 25, 2 p.m.
Hey, it’s Ronaldo
In the 84th minute, it’s Morocco’s turn for a sloppy clear and Ronaldo — unheard from for a very long stretch — is fouled inches outside the box. His free kick bangs off the wall.
Fayçal Fajr replaces Karim El Ahmadi, and Morocco is out of subs.
Minutes later, Joao Joao Moutinho is off and Adrien Silva is on for Portugal, which is likewise out of subs. Silva draws a yellow card for an errant takedown minutes later.
Another sub for Morocco
Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez enters for Morocco, replacing Younes Belhanda in the 75th minute. The latter had a good stretch in the second half.
Amrabat is now attacking the left side of the field, it appears. Interesting.
The frazzled Portuguese
Ahead of a Morocco close-in free kick in the 67th minute — Ziyach sent it well over the bar — Portugal’s players seemed to be pleading with Coach Fernando Santos to make some changes in the back to fend off this relentless attack. He responded by sending in Bruno Fernandes for Joao Mario (Fernandes started Portugal’s World Cup opener ahead of Mario).
Meanwhile, Ayoub El Kaabi is on for Morocco, replacing Khalid Boutaib up top.
Gelson Martins comes in for Bernardo Silva in the 59th minute.
More sloppiness from Portugal
The favorites continue to do themselves no favors, lethargically giving the ball away at midfield numerous times over the first 10 minutes of the second half. Morocco continues to press after the miscues, and in the 55th minute, Younes Belhanda sent a rocket that Patricia had to reach to stop.
Two minutes later, Patricio has the save of the game, again on Belhanda, who headed a free kick toward the goal. Patricio dives with all of his height to save it.
Halftime: Portugal 1, Morocco 0
The score line says Portugal is winning, but that’s far from apparent on the field. Amrabat’s ability to race the ball past the Portugal defense on the right side is giving the favorite all sorts of troubles. All the Atlas Lions need is one clean cross and we’re talking about an entirely different game.
In the 39th minute, Ronaldo chips the ball to an advancing Gonçalo Guedes, who had gotten a step on the defense in the box. El Kajoui is able to make the save, however.
Less than a minute later, Morocco’s Mehdi Benatia gets a yellow card after being repeatedly warned. The crowd seems eminently, loudly pro-Morocco, and they’re not happy with the calls. Morocco has been whistled for 10 fouls, 5 for Portugal.
More from Morocco
Take away the goal and it’s been all Morocco, whose attack is best described as frantic.
Mehdi Benatia shoves Ronaldo to the turf from behind in the 25th minute and gets a stern lecture from referee Mark Geiger. Ronaldo writhed around for a bit clutching his ankle, but he’s back.
Morocco Coach Herve Renard also gets a talking-to after vehemently protesting the lack of a call when Nordin Amrabat is taken down by Raphael Guerreiro in — or at least very near to — the box. No review, play on.
Morocco not backing down
Apart from some questionable marking of the world’s greatest player — Ronaldo got another good attempt not long after his goal — Morocco isn’t laying down, forcing Rui Patricio to get down and made a save off a header in the 11th minute. They’ve had a number of okay chances already.
In the fourth minute, who else: Ronaldo heads it in after a short corner kick is delivered right to his skull. Nifty step around the defender in the box to get free, and he’s done it again. It’s his 85th career international goal, moving him past Ferenc Puskas of Hungary for the most by a European player.
New look for Ronaldo?
Everyone still is talking about Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick in last week’s mesmerizing 3-3 draw with Spain, but let’s not forget that one of those goals shouldn’t have happened: Spain goalkeeper David De Gea let one through that he usually would have stopped late in the first half, when Spain was dominating. A save there, and the run-up to Wednesday’s clash with Morocco could have had an entirely different theme. As it stands, Portugal doesn’t want anything less than a win here.
Nordin Amrabat will play for Morocco even after he bonked heads with Iran’s Vahid Amiri in last week’s dispiriting 1-0 loss, suffering a concussion. With matches looming against Portugal and Spain, the Atlas Lions desperately needed to come away with at least a point against Iran, a hope that was dashed when Aziz Bouhaddouz headed the ball into his own net well into extra time in the second half. Morocco now needs at least a draw with Portugal to have any chance at the knockout round, a tall task.
Portugal: Patricio, Cedric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro, Silva, Moutinho, Carvalho, Mario, Guedes, Ronaldo.
Morocco: Mohamedi, Dirar, Da Costa, Benatia, Hakimi, El Ahmadi, Boussoufa, Belhanda, Harit, Boutaib, Ziyech.
Of note: Joao Mario replaces Bruno Fernandes on the left side of Portugal’s midfield. For Morocco, Manuel Da Costa — son of a Portuguese father and a Moroccan mother — replaces Romain Saïss in the center of its defense.
— Matt Bonesteel
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