World Cup Saturday Preview: France continues 2018 title defense in epic match with England, while Cinderella Morocco plays Portugal in quarterfinals

RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jose Breton/NurPhoto/Shutterstock (13648816x) Olivier Giroud centre-forward of France and AC Milan celebrates with Kylian Mbappe centre-forward of France and Paris Saint-Germain after scoring his sides first goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between France and Poland at Al Thumama Stadium on December 4, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. France v Poland: Round of 16 – FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Doha – 04 Dec 2022

World Cup Saturday Preview: France continues 2018 title defense in epic match with England, while Cinderella Morocco plays Portugal in quarterfinals

Quarterfinals: Portugal (No. 9) vs. Morocco (No. 22)

When, where: 9 a.m. CT, Al Thumama Stadium (Doha, Qatar)

Match history: Morocco and Portugal last played each other in the 2018 World Cup group stage when a Cristiano Ronaldo goal in the fourth minute of the game led to a 1-0 victory for Portugal. The only other meeting between the two nations came at the 1986 World Cup, which ended in a 3-1 win for Morocco en route to their first-ever appearance in the knockout stage.

Players to watch, Portugal: Gonçalo Ramos and Pepe. The 21-year-old Ramos of Benfica was called upon in the Round of 16 to fill the starter’s shoes of Cristiano Ronaldo, and he more than did his part with a historic hat trick performance. Despite limited playing time through the group stage, Ramos leads No. 9-ranked Portugal at the 2022 World Cup in total shots (nine), shots on target (five), goals scored (three), and expected goals (1.47). It would be quite a surprise if Portuguese manager Fernando Santos didn’t deploy the same starting lineup in the quarterfinals here against defensive-minded Morocco – Ramos in, Ronaldo on the bench – which will mean Portugal should receive a much-needed offensive boost against the only team not to have allowed an opposing player to score a goal in Qatar. Morocco’s defense has been the stingiest of all 32 World Cup nations so far, to say the least, pitching a shutout in three of their four matches, with the only goal scored against them was registered as an own goal versus Canada.

Pepe, on the other hand, became the oldest non-goalkeeper to start a World Cup knockout stage match at age 39, and he did so in epic fashion by scoring on a header in the 33rd minute off a corner kick during Portugal’s 6-1 shellacking of Switzerland in the Round of 16. Pepe will be counted on to hold down the defensive fort once more for his nation, as he’s done so all tournament long. Pepe leads the “Selecção das Quinas” with both five interceptions and five receptions, and his veteran experience will be a key part in determining Portugal’s success.

Players to watch, Morocco: Hakim Ziyech and Yassine Bounou. Ziyech either leads or is tied for the lead on the Moroccan offense in total shots (six), shots on target (two), goals scored (one), chances created (three), and assists (one). The Dutch-born 29-year-old midfielder has the chops to perform on the biggest of stages, as he currently plays for Chelsea in the Premier League. Neither his confidence nor form should be affected against a much-more talented and skilled Portuguese side, and the Moroccans will need him when counter opportunities arise.

Bounou, on the other hand, recently became the star of the tournament for the Lions of Atlas following their penalty kick victory over Spain in the Round of 16. Spain missed all three of its penalty attempts against Bounou, whose unconventional movements in front of the net and unflinching confidence seemed to affect the Spanish. Bounou will need to stir up more of his goalkeeping magic here in the quarterfinals, as he’ll face off against a much more talented offensive attack in Portugal, which will surely be more aggressive than Spain.

Portugal World Cup history: Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal’s deepest tournament run of all time came in 2006 when they reached the semifinals before losing 1-0 to France. Ronaldo, who has already stated that this will be his final campaign on the big stage, will compete in his 21st World Cup match when Portugal plays in the Round of 16. The now 37-year-old global icon has amassed eight goals and two assists over five total World Cup appearances …

Morocco World Cup history: Morocco’s World Cup history has been brief, to say the least, with just five total appearances since becoming a FIFA member in 1958. They made their first World Cup appearance in 1970, bowing out of the group stage three times and losing in the Round of 16 to West Germany in 1986. This is only the second time Morocco has qualified for a World Cup since 1998 …

What to expect: Portugal will advance to the World Cup semifinals for just the third time in history with a win against the unbeaten Moroccans, and it’s ironic that if that does happen, then it’s likely to occur with Ronaldo not in the starting lineup once more. Santos’ decision to bench Ronaldo and insert the 21-year-old Ramos paid massive dividends for the Portuguese in the Round of 16. With the same aggression and offensive pace, it will be tough to envision the European nation not finding the net against Morocco here. Morocco’s Cinderella run in Qatar isn’t necessarily all but over, though. The Arab nation has nothing to lose and is playing with house money at this point, while Portugal, indeed, does have expectations of advancing deeper into the tournament. That dynamic could at least play a small factor here, but in the end, this match should come down to which team can capitalize on just one opportunity to find the net. Given the immense depth and offensive firepower, even without Ronaldo on the pitch, it will be tough to see Portugal going scoreless in this quarterfinal match between bordering nations.

Chris Dell’s Prediction: Portugal 1, Morocco 0

Quarterfinals: France (No. 4) vs. England (No. 5)

When, where: 1 p.m. CT, Al Bayt Stadium (Al Khor, Qatar)

Match history: England is 17-9-5 all-time against France, although the defending champion French have held a commanding edge between the two nations since the turn of the 21st century. France is 5-1-2 in the past eight meetings since 1999, with England registering just one win in 23 years via its 2-0 victory during an international friendly match in 2015. France won the last meeting between the two teams, a 3-2 international friendly match victory in June of 2017, while the last time the two sides played on the World Cup stage came all the way back in 1982.

Players to watch, France: Kylian Mbappé and Olivier Giroud. This France squad is as straightforward as it gets, balancing the generations of the past with the youth of the present in its top two players, Mbappé and Giroud. The French duo has combined to score eight of France’s nine non-penalty goals at the 2022 World Cup and lead their nation in nearly every statistical category across the board. Mbappé ranks first for France through four matches in total shots (21), shots on target (10), goals scored (five), expected goals (2.69) and is tied for the team lead in assists (two) with Ousmane Dembélé, who leads France in chances created (nine).

Giroud, now France’s all-time leading goal scorer, ranks second for the French and behind Mbappé in total shots (nine), shots on target (three), goals scored (three), and expected goals (2.37). With England’s defense seemingly forced to focus on Mbappé, the 36-year-old Giroud of Milan should have ample opportunity to create chances for both himself and his teammates come Saturday’s quarterfinal match against the English. Giroud will enter the quarterfinals 13 years older than teammate Mbappé, although the two already seem to have the chemistry of lifelong teammates when playing together on the pitch. The communication and cohesion that this duo brings to France’s frontline will be the critical factor in whether the French advance.

Players to watch, England: Luke Shaw and Jude Bellingham. Much will be discussed when it comes to English star Harry Kane and leading goal scorer Marcus Rashford, but it will take a true team effort if England is to advance to their second straight World Cup semifinals and defeat France here. Bellingham already seems to be a mere lock for the 2022 FIFA Youngest Player Award based on his outstanding defensive work in Qatar through four matches, and it’s for good reason. The 19-year-old midfielder out of Dortmund leads England in tackles won (11) and receptions (23) on defense while completing 93% of his 210 passes in the tournament.

The 27-year-old Shaw of Manchester United leads England with six chances created in four matches, besting all of Kane, Bukayo Saka, and Phil Foden in that ever-important statistical category. Shaw also ranks second on the team in expected assists (0.59), mere decimal points behind leading assist man Kane, while ranking second on the team with four interceptions.

France World Cup history: France has two World Cup titles to its name, the first coming in 1998 and the most recent in 2018 when they defeated Croatia in the finals. The French were also World Cup runners-up in 2006, finishing in second place after a heartbreaking 1-1 loss to Italy on penalty kicks (3-5). This will be the fifth quarterfinals appearance in France’s past seven World Cup appearances, and they have indeed also made the World Cup seven straight times since 1998 when they beat Brazil 3-0 in the finals after not qualifying from 1990-1994.

England World Cup history: England, on the other hand, will officially begin its quest for 2018 World Cup knockout stage redemption after making the semifinals in Russia and being upset by eventual runner-up Croatia. England’s best finishes in the World Cup have been fourth place in 2018, fourth place in 1990, and of course, its 1966 title when it was the host and defeated West Germany in the finals. This is England’s 15th time qualifying from group play in 16 World Cup trips, dating back to its first-ever appearance in 1950. The only time the English didn’t advance past the group stage was in 2014, when it finished behind both Italy and Uruguay in group play …

What to expect: France entered Qatar with a myriad of injuries to many of its mainstays and star players, but the depth has shown well despite missing the services of all of N’Golo Kanté (hamstring), Paul Pogba (leg), Mike Maignan (calf), Christopher Nkunku (leg), Karim Benzema (thigh), and Lucas Hernandez (knee). The cluster injuries for France have been somewhat offset by the rise of Mbappé, however, who is surely performing as the best footballer in the world at the moment at the ripe age of just 23 years old. The 25-year-old Ousmane Dembélé of Barcelona has also been an X-Factor for France and should go relatively overlooked against an English defense focused on Mbappé and Giroud in this match. While France is still in the midst of a title defense, it’s hard to say they’re the team with more pressure in this match. England’s always lofty expectations are back in the quarterfinals yet again here, while France could fall back on injury excuses if it were to lose. I expect the French side to play looser on Saturday because of it, while England enters the pitch feeling like the favorites to win and advance. Don’t be surprised to see this heavyweight match go into extra time, or even to penalty kicks.

Chris Dell’s Prediction: France 2, England 1

Quarterfinals/Knockout Stage Schedule

Saturday, Dec. 10

  • Who: Portugal (No. 9) vs. Morocco (No. 22)
  • When, where: 9 a.m. CT, Al Thumama Stadium (Doha, Qatar)
  • Who: England (No. 5) vs. France (No. 4)
  • When, where: 1 p.m. CT, Al Bayt Stadium (Al Khor, Qatar)

Semifinals/Knockout Stage Schedule

Tuesday, Dec. 13

  • Who: TBD (No.) vs. TBD (No.)
  • When, where: 1 p.m. CT, Lusail Iconic Stadium (Lusail, Qatar)

Wednesday, Dec. 14

  • Who: TBD (No.) vs. TBD (No.)
  • When, where: 9 a.m. CT, Al Bayt Stadium (Al Khor, Qatar)

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