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A couple of hours before the Group B encounter between Portugal and Morocco was about to start here on Wednesday, the avenue in front of the stadium looked like a red river. Fans of both the nations wore red of different shades and from far it looked like a workers’ rally.
Fighting for rights or goals is not what Cristiano Ronaldo is running for these days. Those rebellious runs down the left are a thing of the past. Economy of movement and touch are the two tenets he is working with, and also trying to spread it among his teammates. It was not even four minutes into the match when Portugal, in whites, found the lead. The captain arrived unmarked to head home a corner, taken quick and short. Bernardo Silva pushed it for Joao Moutinho, who delivered a precise cross at the edge of the six-yard box. Ronaldo did the rest as Mehdi Benatia-led defence seemed overawed by reputation.
Maybe it was the easiest of the 85 international goals Ronaldo has scored to become Europe’s highest goal-scorer. After frayed nerves were soothed, that’s what an early goal does, it was fascinating to track Ronaldo.
Waiting, walking, often pleading with the referee, remonstrating, usually far away from the scene of action. Once the ball was played towards him, he came alive. Long periods of inactivity do not make him rusty and, as if to add spice to his gelled hair, Cr7 is growing a goatee. On the far end, Bernardo Silva went on his mazy runs while Raphael Guerreiro was bursting his lungs, leaving his mark on every blade of grass on the Luzhniki pitch, either to rescue his defence or to support the attack. William, the midfield insurance, was busy keeping things calm.
At the other end, a similar job was assigned to Benatia, that of keeping Ronaldo quiet. The Moroccan captain failed early. The chase unfolded through the rest of the game and Morocco often looked the more creative. Benatia himself scuffed two clear chances while Ziyach Hakim left a good impression with his distribution and guile. A lot of suitors will be chasing him once the transfer season gets under way.
The moment of the match, apart from Ronaldo’s goal-scoring one, came when Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio effected a one-handed save to keep away Younes Belhanda’s glancing header in the second session. Aerial balls created confusion for Pepe and his defensive partner Jose Fonte and the Herve Renard-coached north Africans created an array of opportunities but none were taken.
Exactly the point Ronaldo made in the fourth minute of the game and has been making for some time now. There are no prizes for creating chances or running oneself to the ground. His header ensured Portugal will stay in the tournament for some more time. Morocco, despite their gallant display, will be going home without a point to show for.