Moscow: Cristiano Ronaldo will attempt to follow up his World Cup opening game heroics for Portugal against a Morocco side licking their wounds after a crushing last-gasp defeat.
A hat-trick from the five-time world player of the year snatched a thrilling 3-3 draw for the European champions against Spain in a heavyweight Group B showdown in Sochi. It was Ronaldo’s 51st career hat-trick, and the 51st in the tournament’s history, as the Real Madrid star became just the fourth player to score in four World Cups.
“I am very happy, it’s a nice personal record to have, one more in my career,” said Ronaldo.
“For me the most important thing is to emphasise what the team did against one of the favourites to win this World Cup.”
Despite lifting the trophy at Euro 2016, Portugal are not widely viewed as among the favourites in Russia but can take a big step towards the last 16 with a victory over Morocco in Moscow on Wednesday.
“I think we are stronger than Morocco if we compare the two teams, but I’m not saying the game will be easy for us,” striker Andre Silva told reporters at Portugal’s training base.
“We cannot underestimate them and must have respect for any opponent. Any game at the World Cup is difficult.”
It will be just the second meeting between the two countries after Morocco beat Portugal 3-1 in the group stage at the 1986 finals.
Morocco did not concede a single goal in the final qualifying round as they sealed a return to the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, but their knockout hopes hang by a thread after a 95th-minute own goal by Aziz Bouhaddouz against Iran.
– ‘We’re not dead’ –
Herve Renard’s men face a monumental challenge, with games to come against Portugal and Spain, but midfielder Faycal Fajr is adamant all is not lost for the Atlas Lions.
“If I said that we don’t believe we can qualify it would be a lie,” said Fajr, one of 17 players born abroad in Morocco’s 23-man squad.
“I could throw out some examples, like the Argentina draw (1-1 with Iceland). Where there’s a will there’s a way. (The Portuguese) have two feet, two legs and they are humans like us.”
“We lost a battle but we haven’t lost the war. We’re not dead,” he added.
Renard lamented that Morocco were “crucified by our own errors” in the loss to Iran, but the Frenchman is used to defying the odds, having led outsiders Zambia to a surprise triumph at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.
He then became the first coach to win the continental title with two different teams three years later, guiding the Ivory Coast to glory. Morocco will need Renard to conjure up more magic to prevent an early exit, although Fajr says the mood in the camp remains positive.
“Even after the defeat, the atmosphere was terrific,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for 20 years, all Moroccans have been waiting for this for 20 years. We’re one big family.”