Moscow (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo scored his fourth goal of the World Cup on Wednesday as Portugal beat Morocco 1-0, condemning the north African team to an early exit while 2010 champions Spain prepared to play Iran.
The five-time world player of the year netted with an early header to go with the hat-trick he scored to rescue the European champions against Spain in their tournament opener.
The Real Madrid player, who won his fifth Champions League crown last month, now has 85 international goals — a record for a European player.
“I’m happy I scored the goal but the most important thing is that we won the game. We have to think match by match in order to progress,” he said.
Disappointed Morocco coach Herve Renard said his side could take pride from their performances in Russia despite being out of the running to qualify for the knockout stages.
“We qualified for a World Cup after 20 years and we’ve showed that we can play football,” he said. “We do play football.”
In the later match in Group B, Spain head to Kazan to face Iran, still counting the cost of a chaotic run-up to the tournament during which Julen Lopetegui was sensationally sacked just two days before they opened their campaign.
– Spanish stress –
Former international defender Fernando Hierro is now at the helm and has the job of steadying the ship and steering Andres Iniesta and his teammates into the last 16.
“It’s a crucial match that will determine our World Cup destiny,” said midfielder Isco of the Iran showdown.
“We want to score from the opening minute, even though that won’t be easy.”
Iran kicked off their campaign with a 1-0 win against Morocco, thanks to a late own goal by Aziz Bouhaddouz, piling the pressure on Spain at Kazan Arena.
Iran’s opening victory sparked celebrations in the streets of Tehran and throughout the Islamic republic.
Coach Carlos Queiroz concedes Iran now face one of the biggest challenges in their World Cup history, but maintains they can “make the impossible possible”.
“We are well aware of Spain’s reputation, so we’ll have to play our best game ever. In the end the football gods will decide,” said the former Real Madrid coach.
Iran have never beaten a European side at a World Cup — their only previous victory was a 2-1 win over the United States in France in 1998.
– 100 up for Suarez –
Uruguay take on Saudi Arabia in Wednesday’s other game, with forward Luis Suarez notching his 100th appearance for the Celeste in the Group A clash in Rostov-on-Don.
A win for the South American team would send them through to the next round alongside Russia, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt would bow out.
Barcelona forward Suarez has exited the last two World Cups in disgrace after being sent off for a goal-line handball against Ghana, and he infamously sank his teeth into Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in 2014.
The game itself should be straightforward for Uruguay, who won their Group A opener 1-0 against an Egypt team without Mohamed Salah as they face a Saudi Arabia outfit hammered 5-0 by hosts Russia in the tournament curtain-raiser.
The Saudis’ preparations were jolted by a mid-air mishap on Monday when the plane carrying them to Rostov suffered a fire in one of its engines.
The aircraft landed safely after what one of the Saudi players called a “simple malfunction”.
Hosts Russia beat Egypt 3-1 in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday, putting them on the brink of the next round despite pre-tournament expectations that they would struggle to get out of their group.
After a goalless first half, Egypt captain Ahmed Fathi scored an own goal before Denis Cheryshev struck and Artem Dzyuba added a third. Salah scored a consolation penalty late on but it was not enough for the Pharaohs.
A grinning Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev posted a photo on Facebook of him watching the Egypt game with his Belarussian counterpart Andrei Kobyakov.
“Victory!” he wrote.