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Atlas Lions first-ever African team into semi-finals as Portugal crash out



Morocco have become the first African side to progress to the World Cup semi-finals after an extremely hard-fought 1-0 victory over Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.

Holding on for dear life for the majority of the second half, the Atlas Lions outlasted wave after wave of Portuguese attacks in a defensive performance for the ages.

For Ronaldo, it’s a premature exit from Qatar and with the legend now 37 years old, that was surely his final shot at football’s holy grail.

Plenty of empty seats could be seen in the 44,000-capacity Al Thumama Stadium as this quarter-final clash kicked off.

There was no room for Ronaldo in Fernando Santos’ starting 11 again, the ex-Manchester United forward forced to settle for a spot on the bench.

Morocco, in their first-ever quarter final, looked content to sit back and allow their opponents the lion’s share of possession. Portgual were trying plenty of long diagonal balls to try and stretch their opponents.

Portgul’s set pieces were causing Morocco plenty of problems.

After 15 minutes Morocco had enjoyed only a meagre 22.2 per cent of the ball, showcasing just how much control Portugal were exerting over the contest.

Bruno Fernandes was a touch late when he collided heavily with gloveman Yassine Bounou, but the Manchester United midfielder escaped sanction for the strong contact.

Joao Felix went close when his deflected shot nestled on the top of the net after half an hour.

Morocco’s best chance to that point fell to Selim Amallah, however the midfielder was unable to control his shot and sent it flying over the bar. Sofiane Boufal was also proving to be a handful, making his way through Portugal’s midfield on more than one occasion.

Felix had a half-chance when he tried to redirect a cross with a cushioned side-foot but saw his effort fly high into the stands.

Portugal were made to pay for failing to capitalise on their dominance when Youssef En-Nesyri’s towering header vaulted his side to a 1-0 lead.

(Photo by Youssef Loulidi/Fantasista/Getty Images)

Diogo Costa came for the looping delivery but got nowhere near it, allowing En-Nesyri a free jump at the cross and the Sevilla forward made no mistake.

Just minutes later Bruno Fernandes almost caught Round of 16 penalty shootout hero Yassine Bounou off guard, hitting a volley as he turned but the midfielder was denied by the crossbar.

As the half-time whistle blew Santos had plenty to ponder, not least of which when – surely not if – he would be beckoning Ronaldo to come on to help prevent Morocco from becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup.

“Morocco have been outstanding in this first half,” SBS pundit Robbie Cornthwaite said.

“Costa should’ve stayed on his line. Terrible.”

“No communication between the keeper and the defender there,” Sarah Walsh added on SBS. “I don’t know what’s going on there. Morocco have been clinical, building for the second half.”

It only took five minutes after the restart for Santos to call for Ronaldo, who replaced Rúben Neves.

Portugal, enjoying more than two-thirds of possession, began to pile on the pressure. Things got hairier for Morocco when centre-back Romain Saiss was forced off with an injury.

With 20 minutes to play Morocco, though still ahead, were now holding on for dear life.

Felix had a few chances, the best of which drew a fantastic save from Bounou. Portugal kept knocking on the door but weren’t finding any joy with Morocco well and truly shutting up shop.

Eight minutes of stoppage time was announced as things got more and more tense. Ten men behind the ball for Morocco; Portugal trying anything everything in the desperate search of an equaliser.

Walid Cheddira picked up two quick yellow cards, reducing the Atlas Lions to 10 and eliminating the one outlet they had when winning the ball back. But still time ticked away and the first-ever African semi-final appearance drew closer.

Ronaldo tried to get things going in very likely his final World Cup.

Pepe’s missed header in the 107th minute was Portugal’s last chance as the final whistle rang out, confirming Morocco as the first African side to reach the final four of a World Cup.

“It’s an incredible result for world football. This is a team united,” Cornthwaite said post-game.

“It’s possibly one of the best defensive performances (in World Cup history).”

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