Cristiano Ronaldo became Europe’s all-time leading scorer in international play with a fourth-minute diving header as Portugal survived a game challenge from Morocco to record a 1-0 victory in Group B play Wednesday in Moscow.
Ronaldo shook free of his mark to head a cross into the upper right corner from Joao Moutinho after he played a short corner from Bernando Silva on the left. It was the Ronaldo’s fourth goal of this World Cup and 85th with the Navigators, moving him ahead of the “Galloping Major” Ferenc Puskas, who totaled his 84 with Hungary from 1945-56.
The result gives Portugal the top spot in Group B pending the result of Spain’s match against Iran later Wednesday. The Navigators have four points and a plus-one goal difference with four goals scored.
Morocco was eliminated with its second disheartening 1-0 loss in group play. The Atlas Lions, who were done in by an own goal deep in stoppage time in their opener versus Iran, were the better team for long stretches of this contest, but inspired buildup play was canceled out with a lack of clinical finishing.
After Ronaldo’s seventh career World Cup marker, which Morocco coach Herve Renard contended should not have counted because Pepe committed a foul as the ball was sent into the penalty area, he nearly had a second in the 10th minute but put his shot wide of the left post with keeper El Kajoui rooted in place.
That near-catastrophe shook the Atlas Lions into activity, with one-time Portugal youth player Manuel De Costa getting a downward header on target off a corner from Hakim Ziyech. Morocco was constantly finding success advancing on the right, where Noureddine Amrabat, a surprise starter after suffering a concussion against Iran, was giving Portugal left back Rapahel Guerreiro a torrid time.
In the 23rd minute, Ziyech took a low shot from 25 yards Rui Patricio saw all the way into his hands. Morocco had a penalty shout when Amrabat was hauled down by Guerreiro, but since both players had a handful of the other’s fabric, it was no harm, no foul. Ronaldo had a free kick in a dangerous area just after the half-hour, but he blasted it into the wall.
Ronaldo then sent strike partner Goncalo Guedes through after a chest trap and pass over the defense, but the Valencia forward failed to deliver a solid finish as El Kajoui got his hand to the attempt. Morocco had one last chance in the opening 45 minutes, but Younes Belhanda could not get enough of Ziyech’s free kick to put it on frame.
Portugal spurned two chances to make it 2-0 early in the first half as both Silva and Ronaldo failed to put their attempts on target after hitting out on the counter. Then it was Morocco’s turn to pour forward as Belhanda had two quality chances.
The first was a right-footed shot from 15 yards Patricio stopped. The second, in the 57th minute, was the Atlas Lions’ best chance of the contest as Belhanda met Ziyech’s in-swinging free kick to put a downward header from 10 yards on target, but Patricio dove to his right to send it over the crossbar.
On the hour mark, captain Mehdi Benatia should have done better from 15 yards after controlling a Ziyech free kick and sidestepping a defender but went over the bar. In the 79th minute, the Juventus defender could not cleanly get his head to a free kick by Ziyech and sent it wide of the right post.
Portugal finally relieved some of the pressure with a counter that gave Ronaldo another free kick in a dangerous area just above the box in the 84th minute, but the wall absorbed another blast. Morocco resumed its chase of an equalizer and nearly had it on 89 minutes, but Pepe got in front of a shot by Ziyech to deflect it over the crossbar.
The Atlas Lions had one last chance in stoppage time, but as was the case all match, it went begging as Benatia skied a 10-yard attempt over the bar.
Morocco will have a chance to play spoiler in its final match as it faces Spain on Monday in Kaliningrad, while Portugal will try to claim group honors the same day against Iran in Saransk.