MOSCOW – Off the top of his head, Cristiano Ronaldo scored yet another goal, set a European record and eliminated Morocco from the World Cup.
The Portugal forward headed in a fourth-minute cross from the right to give Portugal a 1-0 victory on Wednesday. It was his 85th goal for his country, the most for any European player in almost 150 years of international soccer.
“It was beautiful for me,” Ronaldo said after being voted the man of the match for the second straight game.
Ronaldo celebrated his goal by pointing at his chest during a trademark run and soaring leap toward the corner flag at the Luzhniki Stadium.
The goal moved the 33-year-old Ronaldo ahead of Ferenc Puskas, another Real Madrid great who scored his last goal for Hungary in 1956. He is alone in second place worldwide behind Ali Daei’s 109 goals for Iran.
“He has a great coach,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said through a translator, laughing when asked about Ronaldo. “He’s like a port wine. He knows how to refine his capacity and age at his best.”
Ronaldo’s four goals top the individual scoring chart at this year’s World Cup. Buoyed by his hat trick in a 3-3 draw against Spain on Friday, including a spectacular free kick late in the game, Ronaldo scored against Morocco with his first meaningful touch of the match.
He was too strong for marker Manuel Da Costa and found space in the goalmouth to meet Joao Moutinho’s cross following a short corner.
Ronaldo had two more free kick chances, each from less than 20 yards (meters). But both were blocked by a solid wall of defenders as the Portuguese ground out a result from an often poor display, much like it did two years ago on its run to the European Championship title.
There were 42 fouls in the match, and only two Portuguese shots on target. Most of the best play came from Morocco, but the North Africans now have no chance of advancing from the group stage after a second straight 1-0 loss.
Morocco had enough scoring chances, nearly all from set pieces, and three came in a five-minute spell early in the second half. Younes Belhanda was twice denied by goalkeeper Rui Patricio’s diving saves, and defender Mehdi Benatia scooped a shot over the bar.
In stoppage time, Benatia lifted another shot too high with an even clearer chance.
“Those who know how to be in the penalty box and know how to make plays are the ones who make all the difference,” Morocco coach Herve Renard said.
Benatia, a rugged defender who plays for Juventus, led the effort to stop Ronaldo. His hard tackles from behind, however, earned him a yellow card.
There was a separate clash in the penalty area between Morocco winger Noureddine Amrabat and Portugal left back Raphael Guerreiro. Guerreiro raised his shirt to show the referee a set of scratches across the right side of his stomach, and Renard was lectured by American referee Mark Geiger for demanding a video review of the incident.
Portugal looks set to advance to the round of 16 while Morocco will certainly be going home.
Portugal now has four points and leads Group B ahead of the late match between Iran and Spain.
The Portuguese will play Iran in their final match on Monday in Saransk.
Keys to success
Ronaldo was a clinical finisher and also one of Portugal’s best defenders. His headed clearances helped out a back line that seems vulnerable to corners and free kicks despite the height of veteran center backs Pepe and Jose Fonte.
Morocco, playing in its first World Cup in 20 years, linked well through the midfield but relied on set-pieces for its clearest chances – a growing theme at this year’s tournament.
Its clearest shooting chances fell to a defender, Benatia, who could not keep them on target.
Ronaldo seems to like Olympic stadiums.
After a hat trick against Spain in the Sochi stadium that staged the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2014 Games, he scored the winning goal against Morocco at the main venue for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Amrabat started the match wearing protective headgear only five days after sustaining a head injury in the match against Iran.
He discarded the cushioned protector early in Wednesday’s match, and played strongly for the rest of the game.
The World Cup does not have formal concussion protocol, and his return seemed to contradict a previous Morocco team statement that he would rest for a full week.
“His spirit is amazing,” Renard said, “and I am lucky to have a player like this.”
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