Portugal back on track, Morocco on the edge (2:1)
Portugal and Morocco went into today's encounter knowing that defeat might rule them out of a place in the quarter-finals. As things transpired, it was the Europeans who took a big step towards the next stage by virtue of their superior finishing. Two goals from set-pieces saw them banish the memory of their shock defeat to Iraq and get their quest for Olympic Gold back on track. Morocco are not out of it, but with just one point from their two games, they have a mountain to climb if they are to reach the knock-out stage.
As with so many crunch matches, tonight's clash got off to a very cagey start as the teams sized each other up and probed for weaknesses. Cristiano Ronaldo and Danny constantly switched wings for the Portuguese, while Farid Talhaoui, Mehdi Taouil and Bouchaib El Moubarki popped up all across the frontline for the Moroccans.
Those tactics were clearly designed to keep the opposing defences guessing, and it was the Moroccan trio who were the more effective in the early stages. In the 9th minute, El Moubarki raided down the left and pulled an inviting cross back towards the danger zone only for Ricardo Costa to scramble it just away in the nick of time. Three minutes later, Bouabid Bouden whipped another fine ball in from the right, but again the Portuguese contrived to get it clear. The vibrant Moroccan attack was stretching the Lusitanian defence, but the North Africans could not put the finishing touch to their menacing moves. "We are missing two very important players in attack in Marouane Chamakh and Jaouad Zairi, and their absence really hurt us tonight," explained manager Mustapha Madih afterwards.
As the match went on, Portugal began to come more into it, with the improvement mainly down to the fact that Ronaldo was starting to get on the same wave-length as his team-mates. Hugo Almeida thought he had sent the Europeans into the lead in the 20th minute, but his strike was disallowed for off-side. Nevertheless, the sight of the ball in the back of their opponent's net seemed to inspire José Romao's men. Four minutes later they came within a whisker of notching a legitimate goal. Moroccan goalkeeper Nadir Lamyaghri reacted smartly to punch a vicious cross clear, but Ronaldo collected it at the edge of the six-yard box and, with the 'keeper stranded, fired his shot goalward only for Yazid Kaissi to clear brilliantly off the line.
Portugal maintained the upper-hand for a while after that, and five minutes before the break they got the breakthrough they had been threatening. Fernando Meira took a quick free-kick from 35 yards to send Ronaldo scampering through on goal and the youngest player in the team showed commendable composure to slot the ball past Lamyaghri and into the net. "We were punished for a lapse in concentration," admitted Madih. "Our inexperience was all-too-obvious at that point."
The Europeans re-emerged for the second half intent on extending their lead. Ronaldo came close to grabbing a second from a well-taken free-kick, but the Moroccan defence deflected it off-target. From the ensuing corner, Danny let fly from 20 yards but saw his shot cannon back off the post (51'). After this initial burst of attacking fervour, the Portuguese started to retreat into their shell as the clock ticked down.
Morocco came in search of an equaliser but found it hard to carve out any clear-cut openings. Azzedine Ourahou went close after 54 minutes, when, after a sweeping team move, he picked up the ball on the right wing and swung in a half-volleyed cross-cum-shot that landed on the roof of the net. In the 69th minute, it was Bouden's turn to try his luck from distance, but his 25-yarder also flew narrowly over the cross-bar.
The Moroccans Olympic dream all but died in the 73rd minute, when Danny delivered a fine corner to the back post and Ricardo Costa rose high to head home and make it 2-0.
Five minutes later, the Moroccan nightmare almost got worse, as Bruno Alves unleashed a thunderous free-kick, but Lamyaghri got his finger-tips to the ball and turned it around for a corner. Though they knew their fate had practically been sealed, the Moroccans showed their character by continuing to fight, and their valour was rewarded five minutes from time. Bouden leapt to get on the end of a centre from Ourahou and angled his header into the net. Otmane El Assas then had one last chance to draw the sides level, but he could not beat Moreira and time eventually ran out for the North Africans.
With Iraq beating Costa Rica (2-0) in the group's other match, Morocco are now almost certainly eliminated. "That's the second game in a row in which we played well but failed to take our chances when they came," said a disappointed Madih afterwards. "Our adventure has come to an end, but we can go home with our heads held high." Meanwhile on the Portuguese side, Romao expressed his satisfaction with his side's display: "Matches against Morocco are always tough," he said, " they are a very experienced team and play a good brand of football. Playing them was an excellent way to prepare for our match against Costa Rica." Portugal know they must win or draw if they are to make the quarter-finals.