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Morocco’s WC dream continues as team Portugal is eliminated

YOUSSEF EN-NESYRI center-forward of Morocco and Sevilla FC in action during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarterfinal match between Morocco and Portugal at Al Thumama Stadium on Dec. 10 in Doha, Qatar. — JOSE BRETON

DOHA — Morocco’s extraordinary run in Qatar continued on Saturday as they claimed another massive scalp in beating Portugal 1-0 to become the first African and Arab country to reach the World Cup (WC) semifinals.

A hugely significant victory broke new ground for the game outside of Europe and South America, who have been the dominant force in the sport, winning all 21 previous editions of the World Cup.

The result could also go a long way towards vindicating the controversial decision to host the tournament in the Middle East.

Youssef En-Nesyri’s 42nd minute goal at the Al-Thumama Stadium means Morocco are only the third country outside of Europe and Latin America to reach the last four, after the US at the first World Cup in 1930 and South Korea, co-hosts when they got to the semis 20 years ago.

It is a result with major significance for the world game, providing proof that the gap between the top teams and the rest is closing and handing new hope to many countries who might have felt World Cup success was beyond them.

Saturday’s victory for Morocco comes on top of their win over second-ranked Belgium in the group phase and penalty shootout success against Spain in the last 16.

But against Portugal, despite their pre-match protestations about fatigue, they were more ambitious. They looked for counter attack opportunities while soaking up the pressure with resolute defense.

They have conceded only one goal in their five games at the tournament, keeping at bay some of the tournament’s top names.

Portugal had their chances but not enough to panic the Moroccan backline, who were without the injured Nayef Aguerd and lost skipper Romain Saiss to a thigh injury after halftime.

All the time Morocco waited to burst forward on the counter and left back Yahia Attiyat-Allah, starting his first game of the tournament, led the efforts with several surging runs down the flank.

TOWERING HEADERHe presumably did not want to cross with as much height as he did in the 42nd minute but En-Nesyri proved equal to the challenge with a towering header as he outjumped both goalkeeper Diogo Costa and defender Ruben Dias to hand Morocco the lead.

There were chances for a second as Jawad El Yamiq came close with a header from a setpiece after halftime and late substitute Zakaria Aboukhlal fluffed a chance when he was one-on-one with the goalkeeper at the end of the game.

Morocco’s victory set off jubilant celebrations throughout the region and come as a boost to Qatar, whose choice as hosts was dogged by controversy but they can now wallow in the success of an Arab country.

Portugal had been runaway favorites on Saturday and will consider the defeat as a missed opportunity.

The match marked a possible end to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal career, with the striker reduced to tears as he walked down the tunnel at the end of the game.

His 196th international appearance as a second-half substitute gave Portugal a temporary lift. But there would be no be no fairytale ending for the 37-year-old.

GIROUD SENDS FRANCE INTO WORLD CUPOliver Giroud sent France into a World Cup semi-final with Morocco as his late header after Aurelien Tchouameni’s opener clinched a gutsy 2-1 win over England on Saturday with Harry Kane blazing a penalty over the bar six minutes from time.

Four years ago Giroud did not manage a shot on target in the entire tournament as France won the title but in Qatar he now has four goals and has become his country’s record goalscorer along the way.

France are now one win away from becoming the first back-to-back finalists since Brazil in 2002 and two from being the third team to retain the trophy after Brazil in 1962 and Italy in 1938.

Manager Didier Deschamps, who captained them to their first World Cup triumph in 1998 and coached them to their second title four years ago, described the victory as fabulous.

France really did have to work hard for their win as the first major tournament knockout match between the old sporting rivals maintained the excitement and edge-of the seat drama that has made it such an extraordinary quarterfinal weekend.

They went ahead after 17 minutes when, after a length-of-the-field break, Antoine Griezmann rolled the ball invitingly into the path of Tchouameni, whose 25-yard low shot flew just inside the post.

England eventually got going, pushing and probing, andFrance keeper Hugo Lloris was quick off his line to save at the feet of Kane and then parried another drive from England’s captain.

Lloris was in action again at the start of the second half, tipping a fierce Jude Bellingham shot over the bar as England came out full of purpose and energy.

The dangerous Bukayo Saka was then tripped by Tchouameni and Kane smashed the penalty high beyond his Tottenham Hotspur team mate Lloris to draw level with Wayne Rooney as England’s record scorer on 53 goals.

England, beaten semifinalists four years ago, were buoyed by the goal and were playing with huge confidence but although centre-back Harry Maguire brushed a post with a header they could not make their dominance count.

Instead France hit back as Griezmann swung in a perfect centre that Giroud did brilliantly to reach in front of Maguire,planting his header into the slimmest of gapsafter 78 minutes.

The cross took the ever-elusive Griezmann beyond Thierry Henry as his country’s top assist provider with 28 and was another reminder of why he has played an extraordinary 72 internationals in a row.

England were then given another lifeline via VAR when Theo Hernandez flattened Mason Mount but this time Kane sent his spot kick wildly over the bar in a painful reminder of Chris Waddle’s effort when they lost the 1990 semifinal shootout to West Germany.

England pushed for an equalizer but when substitute Marcus Rashford’s added-time free kick fizzed just over the bar it meant a seventh defeat in 10 World Cup quarterfinals and another ‘four years of hurt’ to tack on since their solitary triumph in 1966.

France now face the unlikeliest of semifinal opponents in Morocco, after they beat Portugal 1-0 earlier on Saturday and Deschamps was quick to recognize their worth. — Reuters

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