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World Cup 2022 Briefing: Will Morocco Be The First To Spring A Surprise?

Main event

After the celebration of countries from the Asian, African and Concacaf regions making it to the knockout stages, Morocco offer the final hope of a country from outside Europe and South America reaching the quarter finals. USA, Australia, Senegal, Japan and South Korea have already had their exit visas stamped at airport security, leaving Walid Regragui’s side as the last ones standing.

The talk of a global shift in the game has been replaced by discussions about how good Kylian Mbappé is and if football is coming home. Today could be the day we get a shock; Morocco and Switzerland will be eager to be the ones to carry them out. Currently the quarter-finals contain six of the best teams on the planet, and where is the fun in that?

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Photograph: Caspar Benson

Few could have predicted Morocco finishing top of their group and Spain coming second to create such a last-16 tie. Inspired by Hakim Ziyech’s return to the national team, Morocco came through the opening three matches unbeaten. Although the Chelsea winger is grabbing headlines with his performances, it should not go unnoticed that they conceded a solitary goal in fixtures against Croatia, Belgium and Canada.

Morocco have not won a knockout stage game in their previous five World Cups and this is only the second time they have reached the final 16. On that occasion – after another unbeaten group stage in which they only conceded once – they faced West Germany and went down 1-0 in Mexico. On Tuesday they face another of the world’s elite in Spain, and a slender defeat would look like an impressive result to outsiders but Morocco will be optimistic of winning. They have four players that ply their trade in La Liga, something that could aid the underdogs.

Opponents Spain laid down a marker in their opening fixture of the tournament by thrashing Costa Rica 7-0, before limping through the next two groups games. A 1-1 draw with Germany did nothing for their reputation and the less said about losing to Japan, the better. At one stage during the final group match, Spain were heading out with Germany but they just scraped through in the end. The most recent two results should be a wake up call for Luis Enrique and his overly-relaxed charges. Unai Simón was culpable for Japan’s opener and his place could be under threat for the match and bringing in Brighton’s Robert Sánchez or Brentford’s David Raya would be a bold call at this critical stage.

Portugal and Switzerland progressed out of their groups with six points. The former, however, came top and will be favourites to advance to the quarters in the late kick-off thanks to their array of talent. The clubless Cristiano Ronaldo has underwhelmed thus far but felt the need to stomp off when substituted during the loss to South Korea. His former Manchester United teammate Bruno Fernandes is more integral to his country than the fading powers of a once great No 7 but the potential of one final crack at winning a World Cup might roll back the years for Ronaldo in the latter stages.

Bruno Fernandes has been in sparkling form for Portugal. Photograph: Etsuo Hara/Getty ImagesThe Swiss finished behind Brazil in their group, giving the South Americans a tough time in their clash, which Tite’s side won 2-0. They will be hoping to do better against another Lusophone nation. If they do defeat Portugal, it would be Switzerland’s first quarter-final since 1954 when they lost an entertaining encounter 7-5 to Austria in a tournament they were hosting. In their past three last-16 ties they have lost 1-0 to Sweden, in extra-time against Argentina and on penalties to Ukraine. They know how to come close to being in the final eight but never get over the line.

Neither Spain nor Portugal would like to see a shock today. For the neutral, however, it would be great for the tournament, but anything that is good for football is unlikely to happen in a competition organised by Fifa. Hopefully, this will be a great day for the fans, rather than the suits.

Talking points

Experience drags Croatia through to last eight

Croatia’s starting XI was the oldest in a World Cup knockout stage since 1998, coming in at an average age of 29 years and 330 days. Positives and negatives arise from having veteran status. It was obvious in the first half how tired their players were, unable to compete with the thrust of Japan on the break and looking unlikely to break down such a well-disciplined team. In the second half of the 90 minutes, however, the experience kicked in. Croatia has a collection of players who were in Russia four years ago when they won two penalty shootouts in the knockout stages, not to mention an extra-time victory over England. In addition to Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic on the pitch, the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Vedran Corluka and Ivica Olic are on the coaching staff. You cannot buy players in international football but there are few within this cohort that Croatia would be willing to sell. WU

A crafty bunch: Croatia’s Luka Modric, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida and assistant coach Mario Mandzukic. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/ReutersStrictly winning top of the agenda for Brazil

Teams very rarely win trophies purely based on individual quality, and no one can deny how much Brazil possess. Instead, success is created by a mixture of talent, hard work and camaraderie. Brazil were scintillating against South Korea, summarised by Richarlison scoring the third, the best team goal of the tournament by a distance. Upon slotting home, the team celebrated as a group, including the substitutes and even coach Tite, who joined in with the rhythmical dancing on the touchline. For the second, Neymar sprinted to the injured Alex Telles in the stands. Everyone is involved in Brazil’s progress thus far in the competition and that team ethic should help take them further. It is not a crime to enjoy doing your job and it is not surprising that the Brazilians in Qatar are loving their work at the moment. WU

Beyond the football

Arsène Wenger is no stranger to criticism. In his last few dispiriting years as Arsenal manager he came in for plenty of flak from fans and pundits alike. He’s back in the firing line again for using his role as chairman of the Fifa technical advisory board to claim that some teams failed in the World Cup group stages because they focused too much “on political demonstrations”. He is ostensibly paid by Fifa to use his football expertise to pick apart the tactical and technical reasons for why teams have done well or not. By bringing politics into his critique of nations who spoke out in support of human rights it appears to be a clear attempt to please his employers as well as Qatar’s Supreme Committee. It’s also very depressing. While he continues to be paid by Fifa perhaps it is Arsène, and not the teams, who should stick to football. GB

Global media-watch

In Portugal’s media the CR7 show is never far away. In Jornal de Notícias there is still some debate whether Ronaldo’s angry words as he left the field having been substituted on Friday – “You’re in a big fucking hurry for me to leave” – were directed at a South Korean player trying to jockey him off the field faster, or his own coach. “I saw the interaction with the Korean player and I have no doubts about what happened,” national boss Fernando Santos said. Well, given he’s rather relying on Ronaldo turning up to play, he would, wouldn’t he?

In Público, they are lamenting that the brilliant scoring record of Ronaldo for the national team is yet to extend to the sharp end of World Cups, saying: “With 118 goals scored for Portugal, only eight were achieved in the greatest football competition in the world. None of them in the knockout stage.” They contrast this with his contributions at the Euros, where he has scored vital goals in knockout games in three separate editions. O Jogo, meanwhile, is fretting over an omen in the appointment of Tuesday’s referee for the clash with Switzerland. “César Ramos refereed a Portugal game that doesn’t bring back good memories. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, also in the round of 16, the Portuguese team was eliminated 2-1 by Uruguay, and the match was refereed by the Mexican.” MB

The internet reacts

You can’t make do with just a psychic octopus these days. Ahead of Japan’s epic last 16 clash with Croatia the internet was going wild for a range of cute animals predicting a Japanese victory, which would have taken them to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first ever time. Lilo the otter at Marine World Uminonakamichi pulled a red frisbee indicating an impending Japanese win, and gave his trainers a little high five into the bargain.

Kurizo – half-dog, half-teddy bear – also predicted a win for the Samurai Blue.

Even an unnamed Tanuki – a Japanese raccoon dog – on night vision camera managed to pick the Japan flag, despite not really appearing to know it was being tested.

It was all to no avail. And spare a thought for Japan’s Ambassador to Croatia, Iso Masato, who found himself at Zagreb zoo for a publicity shoot on Monday morning to watch Kent the Gibbon correctly predict that Croatia were going to win.

Japan’s Ambassador Iso Masato (left) watches as Gibbon Kent and his pack choose food from one of the Croatian bags at Zagreb Zoo. Photograph: Denis Lovrović/AFP/Getty ImagesPerhaps the less said about the captive monkey simulation of the match, the better.

Today’s matches

Morocco v Spain (Last 16, 3pm GMT, ITV1) “A punch in the face” is how the Spain manager, Luis Enrique, described defeat by Japan in their third group match. His hope is that the shock blow wakes his team up before a showdown with a dangerous Morocco side who topped Group F. Spain will almost certainly dominate possession but are vulnerable when they lose the ball – though the return of Aymeric Laporte to the starting XI will aid solidity. Walid Regragui, the Morocco manager, runs a defensively-assured team and his two outstanding players – winger Hakim Ziyech and attacking full-back Achraf Hakimi – are a threat on the break. Spain must be wary of the counterpunch.

Portugal v Switzerland (Last 16, 7pm GMT, ITV1) Xherdan Shaqiri summoned Swiss underdog spirit ahead of this game by proclaiming: “Just as Australia posed problems to Argentina, we can pose a lot of problems to Portugal.” As Australia definitely lost, that might not be the best rallying cry for a Switzerland side that impressed in the fiery 3-2 win against Serbia, with Granit Xhaka controlling play. Xhaka will be kept busy by Portugal’s talent-packed midfield, with Bruno Fernandes – rested in the last group game – in fine form with two goals and two assists. These two sides split a pair of Nations League games earlier this year and while Portugal are deserved favourites, a tight encounter likely awaits. AR

Player to watch

Cristiano Ronaldo Well, obviously. However not for the reasons of old, when he was undisputedly his nation’s main threat. Portugal’s greatest ever player scored in a record fifth World Cup via a penalty but did not find the net in open play in three group games (despite desperately trying to get his hair on a Bruno Fernades cross). We may come to a point where the 37-year-old is stymieing Portugal’s play, keeping exciting attackers such as Rafael Leão – admittedly not a direct replacement – on the bench. Ronaldo has never scored in a World Cup knockout game and will be determined to match Lionel Messi in finally doing so. But if he does not look like scoring, will Santos have the boldness to substitute Ronaldo with the game against Switzerland in the balance? A fascinating subplot. AR

Cristiano Ronaldo cracks a smile as he trains with Portugal before their last-16 tie with Switzerland. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty ImagesAnd finally …

Where do you go to for your World Cup predictions? In 2010 we had Paul the Octopus, in 2014 Brazilian macaws Sarge and Oscar were often spot on, and in 2018 Achilles the Cat had his paw prints all over forecasts for how the tournament in Russia would turn out. But 2022’s go-to predictor isn’t hairy, doesn’t live in water and has only two legs. Step forward French president Emmanuel Macron who, in an interview with Le Parisien, successfully prophesied that France would beat Poland 3-1, with Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappé and Robert Lewandowski all scoring. If he predicts another France win, expect the England team – and not the World Cup – to be coming home. GB

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