Zlatan Ibrahimovic believes it is "already written" Lionel Messi will win the World Cup with Argentina and thinks the full truth about Cristiano Ronaldo's Manchester United exit will never come to light.

Messi has been influential in Argentina's run to the semi-finals in Qatar where La Albiceleste will face Croatia on Tuesday.

Should Messi lift the most prestigious international trophy of all with his country, it will further enhance claims the Argentina legend is the greatest to have played the game.

Milan veteran Ibrahimovic, a former team-mate of Messi's at Barcelona, thinks this is the year the Paris Saint-Germain star will get his hands on the prize.

"I think it's already written who will win, and you know who I mean," Ibrahimovic said.

"I think Messi will lift the trophy, it's already written."

 

Cristiano Ronaldo, a long-term rival of Messi's in the greatest of all time debate, saw his own hopes of World Cup glory dashed by Portugal's surprise quarter-final defeat to Morocco.

It marked the latest blow in a tough period for the legendary forward, who left Manchester United by mutual consent in the wake of an incendiary TalkTV interview with Piers Morgan in which he criticised the club's hierarchy and boss Erik ten Hag.

Former United striker Ibrahimovic says with all sides defending themselves the actual events of what occurred will never be known.

"His exiting United, I think when things happen, we will never know the true story," he added.

"They say what they want to say, he says what he needs to say to protect himself, then you have the coach that says these things to protect himself. 

"Then the club says things – not like me, I will tell you how it really happened. But we are all different. Everybody is careful about their image. 

"For me the perfect image is being yourself. The true story we will not know my friend."

Pepe says Cristiano Ronaldo is "fine" after his emotional response to Portugal's shock defeat to Morocco in the World Cup quarter-finals on Saturday.

Ronaldo was left out of the starting line-up by head coach Fernando Santos for the second straight game after his angry reaction to being substituted against South Korea in the final group match.

Youssef En-Nesyri scored a towering header to give Morocco the lead, and despite Ronaldo's introduction shortly after half-time, Portugal were unable to find an equaliser as they were dumped out of the tournament. 

The loss elicited an emotional reaction from Ronaldo as the five-time Ballon d'Or winner left the field in tears, before a social media post on Sunday saw him accept his "most ambitious dream" of winning a World Cup with Portugal was over.

While Ronaldo held off from making a definitive call on his international future, Pepe feels the forward should be appreciated for his efforts in a Portugal shirt whatever he decides to do.

"Ronaldo is fine," Pepe told reporters after arriving back in Lisbon. "He's our Portuguese flag. He reaches all parts of the world.

"He gave us his contribution when he was called. We have to thank him and all his team-mates who did their best to be available for the coach."

Despite Portugal head coach Fernando Santos' contract running until 2024, it is rumoured he may step down after this World Cup disappointment.

Asked about Santos' future, Pepe explained: "I'm a player, I don't have to talk about it. I'm not going to go down that path.

"Unfortunately, we didn't achieve the goal we wanted. We tried to give everything to honour our country.

"It's football. There are these things. We have to learn from what happened so that the future is better for us."

Portugal's next match is against Liechtenstein in their opening Euro 2024 qualifier on March 23.

Cristiano Ronaldo's farewell to the World Cup was followed by tributes from sporting superstars Pele, Kylian Mbappe and LeBron James.

The Portugal captain said his dream of winning the trophy was over, after his fifth World Cup ended with a quarter-final defeat to Morocco.

Now 37, Ronaldo has conceded the Qatar 2022 tournament was his last World Cup, although he has left the door open for now on playing on in the short term.

Ronaldo lost his place in the side and was a second-half substitute in the last-16 win over Switzerland and also the Morocco game.

He became the first player to score in five separate World Cups, having netted in each edition since 2006, and is also now the joint most-capped player and highest goalscorer in international football history.

However, he never scored in a game in the knockout stages of the World Cup, a blip on an otherwise remarkably successful career.

There was a rapid reaction to an emotional message from Ronaldo on Instagram, where he described the goal of World Cup glory as "the biggest and most ambitious dream of my career".

NBA great James said Ronaldo was a "LEGEND!!", with the Los Angeles Lakers star adding a salute, thank-you and crown emoji to his message.

Three-time World Cup winner Pele, paying close attention to the tournament from his hospital bed in Brazil, wrote: "Thanks for making us smile my friend."

Mbappe, who helped France beat England 2-1 on Saturday to reach the semi-finals, replied to Ronaldo with three emojis. Those were of a goat, referencing Ronaldo's 'greatest of all time' credentials, plus hands together to signal his thanks, and a crown.

Ronaldo's recent interviewer and cheerleader, British journalist Piers Morgan, sent a message containing six sets of clapping hands.

Former Brazil striker Pato wrote to Ronaldo: "You are an example! You inspire people and children around the world. The same ones that criticise you are the ones who want the same success as you. You are a giant! Congratulations."

Jesse Lingard, Ronaldo's former Manchester United team-mate, seemingly got his acronyms muddled, however, as he posted "GAOT".

Cristiano Ronaldo has played his last World Cup match after Portugal's defeat by Morocco in the Qatar 2022 quarter-finals.

The 37-year-old put a full stop to his career on that global stage on Sunday, saying his "dream ended" with the previous day's loss, while leaving it open as to whether he will play on for his country in the short term.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner has achieved record tallies of 196 caps and 118 goals, and he may have his eye on becoming the first male player to earn 200 caps.

His club future is uncertain following an acrimonious departure from Manchester United, but his place in history is undoubtedly secure.

A record breaker, a history maker, here Stats Perform takes a closer look at the highs and lows of Ronaldo's Portugal career to date.

 

Euros bow ends in tears

Ronaldo is the European Championship's all-time leading scorer (14) and appearance maker (25), while he is the only player to feature at five separate editions.

He made his debut at the tournament when Portugal were the 2004 hosts. The then 18-year-old was named in the team of the tournament, but it ended in tears for him as Portugal suffered a surprise 1-0 defeat to Greece in the final.

Bittersweet Euro 2016 triumph

Despite reaching the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012, Portugal boasted a generally underwhelming record at major tournaments ahead of the expanded Euro 2016 tournament.

Fernando Santos' side scraped through the group as one of the best third-placed nations, then required extra time to see off Croatia and Poland – beating the latter on penalties – before overcoming Wales 2-0 in the semi-finals.

Ronaldo scored three goals during the run, but the tears flowed in a final once more as he was forced off injured after 25 minutes following a heavy challenge from France's Dimitri Payet.

Nevertheless, the animated captain barked out instructions alongside Santos from the touchline as Eder's extra-time strike gave Portugal their first major tournament victory, before lifting the trophy at the Stade de France.

 

All-time leading international scorer

Portugal were eliminated from the 2018 World Cup at the last-16 stage by Uruguay, with Ronaldo having hit a brilliant hat-trick in a group-stage draw against Spain. However, the captain was lifting more silverware the following year as his nation landed the inaugural Nations League crown.

More personal success was to follow in September 2021, when a pair of late Ronaldo headers snatched a dramatic 2-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland in World Cup qualifying, taking his international tally to 110 goals – surpassing the long-standing record of Iran's Ali Daei (109).

A scorer in five World Cups

Ronaldo's messy departure from Manchester United dominated Portugal's preparations for this year's World Cup in Qatar.

However, he made headlines for all the right reasons in his country's opening match against Ghana, with a successful penalty making him the first player to score in five different editions of the tournament.

Dropped to the bench against Switzerland

Controversy was just around the corner as coach Santos dropped Ronaldo to the bench for Portugal's last-16 win over Switzerland, having criticised his reaction to being substituted in the previous match against South Korea.

That ended Ronaldo's run of 31 successive starts at major tournaments for his nation – stretching back to their Euro 2008 clash with the Swiss – while they were subsequently moved to deny reports their captain had threatened to leave Qatar in the aftermath of the decision.

World Cup exit marks end of his dream of global glory

Ronaldo was again on substitute duty for the 2022 quarter-final against Morocco, with Santos sticking by Goncalo Ramos after the Benfica striker hit a hat-trick against Switzerland.

Sent into action early in the second half, with Portugal surprisingly trailing, Ronaldo's presence in attack could not spur Portugal to find an equaliser.

He had just 10 touches of the ball and only one shot, cutting a frustrated figure and departing the pitch in tears at full time, with Portugal beaten 1-0, ending Ronaldo's last hopes of lifting the World Cup.

It also meant he again failed to score in a knockout game at the finals. Across his career, Ronaldo drew a blank in all eight of his knockout stage appearances at the World Cup, including the 2006 third place play-off, going 570 minutes without scoring and taking 27 shots in the process.

Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at the World Cup in Qatar looking to cap his remarkable international career by lifting football's greatest prize.

But the forward ended his campaign distraught, being led to the dressing room in tears after Morocco stunned Portugal with a 1-0 quarter-final victory at Al Thumama Stadium.

Ronaldo's tournament was one to forget, with the 37-year-old unceremoniously dropped for his nation's best performance against Switzerland in the last 16 and again being reduced to a role off the bench against Morocco.

It was an underwhelming campaign, but one that will not detract from his previous achievements on the international stage, regardless of whether he continues to represent his country.

As well as becoming the all-time leading goalscorer in men's international football, Ronaldo led Portugal to their first major trophy at Euro 2016 before repeating the trick in the Nations League, and his Selecao records look unlikely to be matched any time soon.

With one of the all-time greats facing an uncertain future after seeing his "biggest and most ambitious dream" dashed, Stats Perform assesses the remarkable numbers behind Ronaldo's Portugal career.

 

Ronaldo has attracted plenty of plaudits for his longevity, deciding games at the highest level from his teenage years until his late thirties. The forward's incredible tally of 196 Portugal caps puts him 50 clear of his nearest contender – Wolves midfielder Joao Moutinho with 146. 

If his appearance record looks set to stand for a long time, his goalscoring numbers look even less likely to be challenged – Ronaldo's tally of 118 international goals is more than double that of Portugal's second-highest goalscorer (Pauleta with 47), and is unmatched in the history of men's football.

Indeed, Iran's Ali Daei is the only other player to have reached a century of goals in international football, hitting the net 109 times.

While Ronaldo's ability to reinvent himself as the ultimate goal poacher allowed him to prosper on the club stage, his international goalscoring prowess was by no means a later development.

Ronaldo failed to score on his first two Portugal appearances as an 18-year-old in 2003, but he has netted at least one international goal in each of the 19 subsequent years.

In 2004, a teenage Ronaldo hit the net seven times in 16 international appearances, helping his side to the Euro 2004 final on home soil and scoring at a rate of a goal every 145 minutes.

Ronaldo's most prolific year for Portugal came in 2019, when he scored 14 times in just 10 appearances at an incredible rate of 59 minutes per goal.

 

On the club stage, Ronaldo has carved out a reputation as the ultimate big-game player – netting in Champions League finals for both Manchester United and Real Madrid while outscoring every other player on Europe's grandest stage (140 goals).

Ronaldo has also appeared to prefer playing within his own continent in a Portugal shirt; his tally of 14 goals at the European Championships is an all-time record, putting him five clear of France great Michel Platini.

Ronaldo has also hit the net seven times in just 11 Nations League games, perhaps making it fitting that his greatest achievements have come when leading his side to continental glory at Euro 2016 and in 2018-19's Nations League campaign.

At the World Cup, it has been a slightly different story for Ronaldo. His tally of eight finals goals is certainly not to be taken lightly, but all of those efforts came in the group stages – no player has scored more often at the tournament without netting in a knockout tie.

Ronaldo did become the first player to score in five different editions of the World Cup when he struck a penalty in their group-stage win over Ghana last month, but that record will mean little in the context of his failure to carry his continental achievements into the world's most important competition.

 

Ronaldo may have failed to get his hands on international football's most prestigious trophy, but that has not stopped the likes of Johan Cruyff or Ferenc Puskas from being considered contenders to be the greatest player to have played the sport.

Proponents of Ronaldo's suitability for that title have often highlighted his raw numbers, and they certainly speak to an historic legacy.

Twenty-four of Ronaldo's 118 Portugal goals have been scored at the World Cup, European Championships or Confederations Cup, with just 20 coming in friendlies, demonstrating his status as a player who has thrived under the brightest of lights.

Age catches up with us all eventually, however, and Ronaldo's displays in Qatar attracted plenty of detractors. 

Where Ronaldo ranks among the greatest players to feature on the international stage will continue to be discussed, but his incredible statistics ensure he will always have a place in that debate.

Cristiano Ronaldo accepts his "most ambitious dream" of winning the World Cup with Portugal is over, but has held off from making a definitive call over his international future.

Five-time Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo left the field in tears on Saturday following Portugal's shock 1-0 quarter-final loss to Morocco at Al Thumama Stadium.

The 37-year-old made history in Qatar by becoming the first player to score in five separate World Cups, having netted in each edition since 2006.

However, that landmark goal – a penalty against Ghana in Portugal's opening group match – proved a rare high point in a tournament that ended in frustration and heartbreak.

Ronaldo lost his place in the side and was a second-half substitute in the last-16 win over Switzerland and quarter-final loss to Morocco.

He did not discuss his future after the match, but the free agent took to social media on Sunday to confirm he will not take part in another World Cup.

"Winning a World Cup for Portugal was the biggest and most ambitious dream of my career," he posted on Instagram. 

"Fortunately, I won many titles of international dimension, including for Portugal, but putting the name of our country on the highest level in the world was my biggest dream.

"I fought for it. I fought hard for this dream. In the five tournaments I scored in over 16 years, alongside great players and supported by millions of people, I gave my all. 

"I left everything on the field. I never turned my face to the fight and I never gave up on that dream. Unfortunately, yesterday the dream ended." 

Ronaldo is both Portugal's most-capped player (196) and record all-time goalscorer (118).

He is currently without a club after having his contract with Manchester United terminated by mutual consent last month.

There had been suggestions he would call time on his international career after Qatar 2022, but the former Real Madrid man will wait before making a formal decision.

"It is not worth reacting hot," he said. "Much has been said, much has been written, much has been speculated, but my dedication to Portugal has not changed for an instant. 

"I was always one more person fighting for everyone's goal and I would never turn my back on my team-mates and my country.

"For now, there's not much more to say. Thank you, Portugal. Thank you, Qatar. The dream was beautiful while it lasted.

"Now, it's time to be a good advisor and allow each one to draw their own conclusions."

While Ronaldo fell short in his bid to win the World Cup with Portugal, he played a part in his nation's Euro 2016 triumph and their Nations League success three years ago.

Erik ten Hag revealed Manchester United will target a striker to replace Cristiano Ronaldo in the January transfer window.

Ronaldo acrimoniously exited Old Trafford last month following an explosive interview, in which he criticised boss Ten Hag and the club's owners.

United have been linked with moves for Cody Gakpo and Goncalo Ramos - both of whom scored three goals at the World Cup for the Netherlands and Portugal respectively.

Ten Hag says the Red Devils are on the hunt for a centre forward, but the Dutchman would not reveal the identity of their targets.

When asked whether United were on the lookout for a striker, the Dutchman replied: "Yes, but only when we find the right player. We do everything in our power.

"We are doing research on every opportunity, and we do everything we can if that opportunity is there to contract them.

"I cannot give comments on specific players. I will never do that. Players have contracts and I respect that, but make sure we are working in the background to get the right players in."

Meanwhile, Ten Hag has been encouraged by Anthony Martial who, despite sustaining a hamstring injury during pre-season, has registered four goals and two assists in seven appearances this term.

"We have seen, when he is available, he has a massive impact on our game," said Ten Hag.

"He has less than 300 minutes [this season] and has four goals and two assists. That's a really good record.

"The first challenge for him is to be available and fit. He has to be responsible for it, but we have to support him in all the ways we can."

Cristiano Ronaldo's partner Georgina Rodriguez has criticised Portugal coach Fernando Santos' tactics as the nation suffered a shock World Cup elimination against Morocco.

The 37-year-old forward was benched for the second successive match, as his side fell to a 1-0 quarter-final defeat thanks to a Youssef En-Nesyri header.

Though Ronaldo was introduced shortly after the start of the second half, he was unable to make an impact.

He marched down the tunnel in tears after Portugal crashed out and Rodriguez later launched a stinging attack on head coach Santos.

"Today, your friend and coach decided wrong," she wrote on Instagram. "That friend for whom you have so many words of admiration, and so much respect.

"The same friend who, putting you on the field, saw how everything changed, but it was too late. 

"You can't underestimate the best player in the world and the most powerful weapon you have, just as you can't stand up for someone who doesn't deserve it."

Ronaldo has almost certainly played his last World Cup game and it remains to be seen where he will continue his club career after he was released by Manchester United.

Though Ronaldo has hinted he may yet play on through to the 2026 World Cup, the question of his future with the national side is also up in the air.

Bruno Fernandes hit out at the decision to appoint an Argentinian referee to Portugal's World Cup quarter-final against Morocco following their defeat, claiming: "They have clearly tilted the field against us".

Portugal were eliminated at the quarter-final stage of the tournament for the first time as Youssef En-Nesyri headed home the only goal of the game in the first half.

However, the performance of referee Facundo Tello was criticised by Portugal's players after the game, in which Fernandes was denied a penalty when he went down under a challenge from Achraf Hakimi.

Defender Pepe described Tello's appointment as "unacceptable" after Portugal's loss, and Fernandes concurred.

"I don't know if they are going to give the cup to Argentina. I'm going to say what I think and f*** them," Fernandes told reporters at the Al Thumama Stadium.

"It's very strange that a referee from a team that's still in the tournament referees us. They have clearly tilted the field against us.

"These referees do not officiate in the Champions League. They are not used to this type of game and this pace. 

"In the first half there is a clear penalty on me, without any doubt. Never in my life have I let myself fall when I was alone with the goalkeeper and could shoot at the goal."

Meanwhile, Portugal's World Cup campaign has been overshadowed by speculation concerning the future of Cristiano Ronaldo, who saw his Manchester United contract terminated last month after criticising the club in an interview with Piers Morgan.

Fernandes refuted the suggestion the talk surrounding Ronaldo had negatively impacted Portugal, saying: "Perhaps because of who he is, people click more often on his news.

"It wasn't for that reason that the team didn't go further. We simply couldn't beat Morocco."

Reflecting on Portugal's campaign in Qatar, Fernandes insisted there had been no issue with their application, preferring to credit Morocco's defensive organisation.

"There are some other teams that could be in the semi-finals," he said. "We had quality and commitment to go further. This was not lacking, but unfortunately football has these moments. 

"It is very difficult and sad to accept this. I can't say anything about my team-mates. They've all been fantastic since the beginning of the tournament.

"It is very difficult to express in words. It is a difficult and sad moment for us. We had the ambition and quality for more. There is always something else that we can leave on the field. 

"But I repeat, the delivery and commitment was total. The big difference was that we couldn't score goals, and they knew how to defend very well."

Fernando Santos has "no regrets" over leaving Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench despite Portugal crashing out of the World Cup with a 1-0 defeat to Morocco on Saturday.

Youssef En-Nesyri's header gave Morocco the lead in the 42nd minute, and Santos' Portugal side were unable to break through their opponent's resolute defence as they were eliminated at the quarter-final stage.

Santos left Ronaldo out of the starting XI for the 6-1 thumping of Switzerland in the round of 16, with his replacement Goncalo Ramos scoring a hat-trick.

The head coach omitted Ronaldo once again against Morocco, but this time Ramos failed to make an impact, as Portugal were dumped out despite Ronaldo's introduction shortly into the second half.

Asked if he regretted not starting Ronaldo, Santos told reporters: "No, I don't think so. I have no regrets, no regrets.

"This was a team that played very well against Switzerland. Cristiano Ronaldo is a great player, he came in when we thought it was necessary. No, I have no regret."

Ronaldo was left on the bench against Switzerland because of his negative reaction to being substituted against South Korea in Portugal's final group game.

The 37-year-old was heavily criticised after the round-of-16 match, but Santos does not feel that fan reaction had any influence on Ronaldo's limited impact against Morocco, after which the forward was shown in tears going down the tunnel.

"I do not think that the criticism he faced had any impact on the match," Santos added. "We have always been a team that is very united.

"If we take two people that were the most upset about the game, perhaps it was Cristiano and myself. We are upset of course, it affects us, but it's part of the game as a coach and a player."

Santos' contract as Portugal boss is due to expire in 2024, but it is rumoured he may resign after this World Cup exit.

Santos was asked whether he would quit as Portugal boss, to which he replied: "I have already discussed this with the president.

"Since 2014 the possibility of resignation has been discussed. This word is not part of our vocabulary.

"We did not go as far as we wanted, it's sad. Our team has great quality, we could have played better but there were games where we needed a touch of luck. That did not happen."

Cristiano Ronaldo was reduced to tears as he left the World Cup stage for surely the final time after Portugal's trophy hopes were scuppered by Morocco.

The 37-year-old, who can turn his attentions towards finding a new club, came to Qatar with dreams of a glorious farewell to the tournament he has graced five times.

Morocco were having none of that narrative, though, and their 1-0 victory at Al Thumama Stadium on Saturday made them Africa's first World Cup semi-finalists.

Ronaldo's pain was obvious, and the tears flowed as he was escorted down the tunnel towards Portugal's dressing room.

He made history in Qatar by becoming the first player to score in five World Cup tournaments, having netted in each edition since 2006. That landmark goal was a penalty in the group stage against Ghana.

But for all his achievements in the game, Ronaldo will not go down as a true World Cup great. He had a sensational club career with Sporting CP, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus, and won the Euro 2016 title with Portugal, but at the World Cup he has never scored in a knockout game. He played eight games beyond the group stage but could not find the back of the net.

Ronaldo will be 41 by the time of the next World Cup, and he is fast declining as a force, so it would be fanciful to even suggest that as a target.

He has spoken about wanting to play on until Euro 2024, but even that may be pushing it, given he is no longer a first-choice selection.

Freed by Manchester United recently after a turbulent start to the second season of his second spell with the Red Devils, it remains to be seen where Ronaldo will continue his career.

Against Morocco, as versus Switzerland at the last-16 stage, Ronaldo was only a substitute. He came off the bench early in the second half of the quarter-final, with Portugal needing a goal, but had just 10 touches of the ball and one shot.

It has reached tributes time for Ronaldo's career, with the FIFA World Cup's Portuguese Twitter page posting: "A myth. A legend. A machine. Thank you @Cristiano"

Morocco became the first African team ever to reach a World Cup semi-final as the Atlas Lions continued their fairytale run in Qatar with a 1-0 win over Portugal at Al Thumama Stadium on Saturday.

Walid Regragui's side saw off Spain on penalties in the last 16, but this was even more impressive and notable as Morocco ensured they will go where no other African nation has ventured before.

Youssef En-Nesyri had the honour of scoring what will go down as one of the most important goals in the history of African football as he powered in a header just before the break.

Portugal piled pressure on for much of the second half, introducing the again-benched Cristiano Ronaldo, but their efforts fell short much to the delight of the Morocco-dominated crowd.

Fernando Santos' side unsurprisingly enjoyed early control, but clear opportunities were non-existent.

Encouraged, Morocco looked dangerous on the break and the contest livened up after the half-hour mark – Selim Amallah blazed over from Romain Saiss' cut-back and the lively Sofiane Boufal shot at Diogo Costa from 25 yards.

As such, the Atlas Lions were good value for the lead when En-Nesyri towered above Costa to head in Yahya Attiat-Allah's cross after 42 minutes.

Portugal looked for a response.

Bruno Fernandes' dipping right-wing volley struck the crossbar, and he was subsequently denied a penalty after claiming to be tugged back in the box.

Ronaldo's introduction – just before Azzedine Ounahi wasted a decent chance – effectively ushered in complete Portugal control.

But Portugal created precious little until crucial late Yassine Bounou saves from Joao Felix and Ronaldo, as Morocco valiantly held on for another momentous result despite substitute Walid Cheddira's stoppage-time dismissal for a second booking.

Cristiano Ronaldo was named on Portugal's bench again as Fernando Santos stuck with Goncalo Ramos for the World Cup quarter-final against Morocco.

Ronaldo was dropped to the bench for Portugal's last-16 tie with Switzerland on Tuesday, and Santos' decision was rewarded as his side cruised to a 6-1 victory.

Benfica striker Ramos, Ronaldo's replacement in the starting XI, repaid his coach's faith by scoring a hat-trick and getting an assist, and he retained his place in the team on Saturday at Al Thumama Stadium.

Santos made just one change to the team that beat Switzerland, bringing in Ruben Neves for William Carvalho in midfield.

That meant Manchester City's Joao Cancelo also remained on the bench, with Diogo Dalot preferred at right-back and Raphael Guerreiro keeping his place on the left.

Morocco coach Walid Regragui was forced into two changes, with key defenders Noussair Mazraoui and Nayef Aguerd unavailable. Yahia Attiyat Allah and Jawad El Yamiq came in for the duo.

The Atlas Lions are appearing in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time, while they are just the fourth African side to reach the last eight in the tournament's history.

Fernando Santos' decision to drop Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal's team might have come too late in the eyes of some.

Ronaldo started each of Portugal's World Cup group games in Qatar, though only managed one goal, converting a penalty he won in the opening win over Ghana.

That goal made history, as Ronaldo has often done. He is the only male player to have scored at five World Cups.

Yet after frustrating Santos with his reaction to a South Korea player's taunts in Portugal's final Group H game, Ronaldo found himself on the bench for Tuesday's 6-1 rout of Switzerland.

His replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick, surely ensuring the bench is where Ronaldo will stay for Saturday's quarter-final against Morocco, the fourth African team to make the last eight of a World Cup.

Yet Ronaldo's omission might have afforded another Portuguese youngster (and like Ramos, one who made his name with Benfica) a chance to finally prove his worth.

Struggling to live up to the hype

Joao Felix seemed set to be a superstar when he broke into the Benfica side in the 2018-19 season.

He directly contributed to 22 goals in 26 league appearances, netting 15 and assisting seven, creating 29 chances. Joao Felix was awarded the Primeira Liga's Best Young Player of the Year and the Golden Boy award, and a huge move was on the cards.

Atletico Madrid, cash-rich with the imminent sale of Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona, pipped the rest of Europe's elite to the 19-year-old boy wonder, paying a club-record €126million to take him to the Spanish capital.

Yet, for whatever reason, whether that be Diego Simeone's pragmatic approach or Joao Felix suffering the inconsistencies that many young players do, it hasn't quite clicked at Atleti.

He has started only 53 games across three and a half years, and in only one season has he created over 20 chances. Joao Felix's best return for goals and assists combined has been 12, coming in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 campaigns.

 

Sure, at times it has looked as though it has started to fall into place, but a player of Joao Felix's talents needs the space and time and tactical flexibility to show what he can do. Too often under Simeone, that has not been the case.

During his time at Atleti, Joao Felix – whose best role falls somewhere between a striker and an attacking midfielder – has played second fiddle to or had to complement Luis Suarez, Alvaro Morata, Griezmann (the man he was brought in to replace, of course) and even Marcos Llorente, before Simeone moved the Spain international to a wide berth.

It has been a similar story on the international stage. Ronaldo has been the player Santos has worked his system around, the entire team geared to getting the best out of international football's record goalscorer.

That has seen Joao Felix often fall to the wayside, what with Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Andre Silva and Diogo Jota, who has missed out in Qatar through injury, among the other attackers he has to compete with.

Time to shine

Yet he has been entrusted in Qatar, starting all three of Portugal's truly meaningful matches, scoring in the 3-2 opening win over Ghana. The first two of those starts came alongside Ronaldo, but against Switzerland Joao Felix was placed on the left of a narrow front three that included Ramos and Bruno Fernandes.

Joao Felix thrived. With freedom to drift, he set up two of Portugal's goals, becoming the nation's first player to provide two assists in a World Cup knockout game, and his performance even drew comparisons to Kaka.

It was Joao Felix's neat ball through to Ramos from the half-space on the left side of Switzerland's box that led to Portugal's 17th-minute opener. 

 

Having received the ball on the cusp of the opposition area midway through the second half, Joao Felix had the awareness to get his head up rather than shoot, and the poise to find another perfect pass through to Ramos for Ronaldo's replacement to wrap up his hat-trick. 

His 42 touches occurred across the pitch, while he lost possession only seven times, a particularly impressive figure given, of Portugal's players, only Bernardo Silva (15) attempted more passes in the final third than the 23-year-old (11).

Santos must stick to his guns

"I don't think it's mandatory to pass to Cristiano. We try to pass to the player that's available," said Joao Felix when previewing the meeting with Morocco.

"Independent of Cristiano being on the field, we have the same tactics, the ones we've been using for all four games. He has skills that other players have and vice-versa. We, as a team, have our own identity and we focus on that."

Joao Felix might have claimed that the tactics do not change, but it seemed clear against Switzerland that, without Ronaldo in the side, Portugal had found their groove.

The signs had been there even before the World Cup, though. Ronaldo did not feature in a pre-tournament friendly against Nigeria and Portugal won 4-0.

Portugal had 15 shots against the Swiss, and remarkably got nine of those on target and finished with 2.28 expected goals (xG).

 

In the three matches Ronaldo had started, Portugal had only finished with an xG of 2.0 once – in their opening win over Ghana, and a penalty in that game will have accounted for a large chunk of that value.

With Portugal playing so well against Switzerland, Santos must stand by his decision.

Yes, Ronaldo can still provide great moments, but he can do so off the bench. At 37, this will likely be his last World Cup, if not his final major tournament.

Joao Felix, who could well leave Atleti for pastures new in January, is the future, and he has proved capable of taking up the mantle.

Cristiano Ronaldo "never told" Erik ten Hag he wanted to leave Manchester United before the forward's explosive interview aired.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner parted ways with United by mutual consent last month after a wide-ranging interview with Piers Morgan on TalkTV in which he said he felt "betrayed" by the club.

Ronaldo also lamented "zero" progress since Alex Ferguson departed Old Trafford in 2013, while hitting out at former interim boss Ralf Rangnick and stating he had "no respect" for current United manager Ten Hag.

The Dutchman claimed the 37-year-old never came to him to discuss his desire to leave, though Ten Hag conceded there was no way back for Ronaldo after his public comments.

"Until that moment he never told me 'I want to leave'," Ten Hag told reporters in Spain, where United are training during the mid-season break for the World Cup.

"I have seen most of it. I have to do it. It is part of my job. The interview, I think, as a club you can't accept. To make that step he knew the consequences. But before, he never told me."

An unceremonious exit will somewhat tarnish Ronaldo's legacy at United, for who he had made just four starts in the opening 14 Premier League games this season.

Ronaldo suggested he may be open to leaving ahead of the 2022-23 campaign, according to Ten Hag, though the Portugal forward opted to stay after consideration.

"In the summer we had one talk," he added. "He came in and said 'I will tell you in seven days if I want to stay'. He came back and said he did. Until that moment [the interview] I never heard anything [else].

"I like to work with world-class players. I know they can make a difference and help you to achieve your objectives.

"I wanted him to stay from the first moment until now. I did everything to bring him into the team because I value his quality.

"We wanted him to be part of our project and for him to contribute to Manchester United because he is a great player and has such a great history."

Ronaldo has been widely linked with a big-money move to Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr but Ten Hag has little interest in what the striker does next as his focus remains with United.

"I don't want to spend energy on that. It is the past. We want a new future of Manchester United and he didn't want to be part of it," he continued.

"All my accountability is in favour of the club and the team. They are the decisions I have to make and it doesn't matter which person it is.

"It is about how we perform now. I believe our performances will confirm that we are going in the right direction."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.