Cristiano Ronaldo surpasses Ferenc Puskas as Portugal surge on in Russia
MOSCOW -- Three quick points on Portugal 1-0 Morocco in Group B at the World Cup on Wednesday afternoon:
1. Ronaldo the record breaker
Him again. Cristiano Ronaldo broke the ice four minutes into the game, with the sort of diving header perilously inches from Karim El Ahmadi's boot that screamed: BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.
The strike takes his personal tally in this World Cup to four, his all-time total to seven (he's in the top 30 now, for what it's worth) and his overall international count to 85, one more than Ferenc Puskas. No European player has scored more for his country. Ahead of him, only Iran's Ali Daei, whose seemingly unbreakable total of 109 looks that little bit more vulnerable now.
Ronaldo took punishment (mostly from Medhi Benatia), directed traffic, helped out on set-pieces and won free kicks. He also missed -- for him -- an open goal that would have sealed the match early, saving Portugal the late game jitters of the Moroccan onslaught.
Ronaldo's latest match-winning exploits took his side to the top of Group B before Spain's clash with Iran on Wednesday night, while Morocco are heading home without a point and without a goal to their name so far this tournament.
Morocco, who last week failed in their bid to host the 2026 World Cup -- a fifth unsuccessful attempt at hosting the tournament -- are also the first team to be eliminated from the 2018 competition. They didn't go without a fight, though, with Rui Patricio in sparkling form in the Portugal goal.
Portugal toiled at times and changed their tactics to reflect their struggle -- more on that in a second -- but once again Ronaldo made the difference. Just like they did en route to winning Euro 2016, Portugal were belligerent rather than beautiful here, with none of Ronaldo's teammates truly stepping up along with him.
In the end it did not matter but if Portugal want to go deep into this tournament, they may require others to take the limelight instead of relying on the Ronaldo show each time.
2. Shapeshifting Portugal desperate at times
Fernando Santos, by our count, changed personnel and formations half a dozen times in this game. From the opening diamond, to a 4-3-3 with Joao Mario as the False No.9, to another version with Bernardo Silva in the hole, to the final iteration, with Ronaldo on his own way up the pitch.
The much-talked about plan of a Portugal in possession, spreading the play and dictating the tempo, never materialised. Joao Mario's two-way running gave them flexibility, but they really struggled to take the sting out of Herve Renard's press.
The centre-back pairing of Jose Fonte and Pepe (who, once again, did himself no favours in terms of his reputation by throwing himself to the ground when Benatia tapped him on the shoulder late on) needs protection and they did not get it.
What's more, the number of times Morocco beat them in the air, especially on set-pieces, ought to be a wake-up call.
3. Blunt Morocco heading home
Morocco leave this World Cup with their heads held high. Indeed, even going back to past World Cups, you struggle to think of another team eliminated so early who showed so much quality. Herve Renard's side were aggressive and precise in their movements off the ball and, when in possession, violated the Portuguese lines with ease.
Hakim Ziyech and Noureddine Amrabat had their way with the opposing full-backs. They were perpetually dangerous on set-pieces and they will look back on a host of missed chances.
There were a couple spectacular saves from Patricio too, none more so than the one-handed parry off Younes Belhanda's header just before the hour mark.
Amrabat suffered concussion in Morocco's opening defeat to Iran and FIFA guidelines state a period of six days' rest is needed in each instance. He returned after five and wore protective headgear, though, with Renard calling him a "warrior" after.
Whether such wording was helpful in light of the debate surrounding concussion in football is a matter for another day. For now, the World Cup will miss Morocco, while Portugal and Ronaldo march on.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.