All eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo’s status for Saturday.
The 37-year-old Portuguese star has seen his career spiral downwards following a tumultuous season where he got benched with Manchester United, which ultimately led to his contract being mutually terminated right before the 2022 FIFA World Cup got underway.
He remained the starting No. 9 for Portugal throughout Group H play against Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea, but he only netted once, which was a penalty kick against the Black Stars in the opener.
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Otherwise, Ronaldo’s playstyle has seemingly caught up to him. If he’s not scoring goals, he usually won’t affect the match in other areas. His pressing off the ball isn’t effective, he doesn’t have the speed or burst to take on and beat defenders one-on-one and he struggles to drop deep and make line-breaking passes to help progress the play.
It led to manager Fernando Santos benching him in favor of Goncalo Ramos in the round of 16 against Switzerland, which came after Santos’ displeasure of Ronaldo’s actions after he was subbed off against South Korea.
Santos’ big-time decision paid off in a massive way, as the 21-year-old Ramos logged a hat trick and an assist in the 6-1 demolition of the Swiss.
Now with a quarterfinal matchup against Morocco, the team of destiny in Qatar, remaining, Santos faces the dilemma of bringing the experienced Ronaldo back onto the pitch in a high-stakes environment or keeping the inexperienced but hot feet of Ramos in the starting XI. Santos has yet to confirm which choice he’ll make.
The odds may not be in Morocco’s favor, but the Atlas Lions have one of the best defenses remaining in the tournament. They’ve played Croatia, Belgium, Canada and Spain and the only goal they conceded was an own goal against Les Rouges.
Morocco are also suffering from tired legs after defending for the majority of the 120 minutes of playing against Spain. La Furia Roja had 77% possession despite the loss, but Moroccan center backs Nayef Aguerd and Romain Saiss are also injury doubts after suffering knocks. Aguerd had to be substituted while Saiss fought through it but noticeably played more passive.
It would make sense, then, for Santos to keep the in-form Ramos starting over an out-of-form Ronaldo.
Portugal also looked more lively with Ramos leading the line, as the ball moved around more instead of the urgency to feed Ronaldo inside the box.
It’s a strange thing to say that Ronaldo, Portugal’s greatest ever player, should not be starting in the nation’s biggest international game since the 2016 UEFA Euro Final vs. France and the 2018 World Cup round of 16 vs. Uruguay, but Father Time is no doubt catching up to the star.
On the other hand, it’s also not bad to have Ronaldo being a spark plug off the bench should Portugal find itself in need of a goal, with Rafael Leao, Andre Silva and Ricardo Horta also as options. Leao, most notably, has scored two goals off the bench in Qatar.
So, will Ronaldo start against Morocco? The answer should come around an hour before kick off, which is when starting lineups are usually revealed. Kick-off time is 10 a.m. ET, 7 a.m. PT, and the winner would await the victor of the England-France showdown for a semifinal meeting on Wednesday.