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Ronaldo says Portugal must improve after Morocco win

Moscow (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo said Portugal have room to improve at the World Cup after his early goal secured a 1-0 win over Morocco as the European champions edged closer to the last 16.

“Our expectation is to continue our work and try to improve in the group phase,” Ronaldo said after his fourth-minute strike decided a hard-fought encounter in Moscow.

“We’re almost there (knockout stages) and then we’ll see. We’ll take things match after match. We will try to come first in the group.”

Ronaldo surpassed Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas as Europe’s all-time leading scorer with 85 international goals as Portugal moved top of Group B ahead of Spain’s game against Iran in Kazan. 

“We knew if we lost we could be out,” Ronaldo said. “We knew Morocco would be giving their all. 

“It was a surprise at the start because they were so strong,” he added. “I managed to score a goal, it was great for me.”

Morocco altered their tactics from their 1-0 loss to Iran, deploying a back four to try and counter the threat of Ronaldo following his hat-trick against Spain in the opening game.

But Herve Renard’s plans were torn apart within minutes at the Luzhniki Stadium as Ronaldo wriggled free of the imposing Manuel Da Costa to bury an unstoppable header.

“Cristiano Ronaldo is like a port wine, he changes as he ages,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos. “He’s constantly evolving, unlike regular players he’s always evolving.

“He won’t be doing the same thing in two or three years and he’s not doing what he did four or five years ago. He knows himself well and what he needs to do.”

Ronaldo’s goal was his fourth goal of the tournament, more than his combined tally at three previous finals, and left him trailing just Iran’s Ali Daei (109) on the list of top international scorers.

But Portugal survived two Morocco penalty appeals and the north Africans created a number of chances, notably a Younes Belhanda header that was superbly kept out by Rui Patricio.

– ‘Anxiety’ –

It was far from a convincing Portuguese display and Santos admitted nerves played a factor, insisting they cannot overlook Iran in their final group game on June 25. 

“There was a lot of anxiety because it’s a World Cup, our team is a strong team but we have to grow,” Santos said.

“We did well defensively, but we need more than that. We have to continue pushing forward and have to change certain things and get more of the ball.”

“Nothing is set in stone,” he added. “The important thing is the Iran game. Our first aim is to get out the group stage because there are very unpredictable results. Only then do you focus on the next stage which is all or nothing as a knockout.”

For Morocco, a second successive defeat condemned them to an early exit in their first World Cup appearance since 1998.

“I’m not disappointed about the performance,” Renard said. “I’m very happy with the performance. I’m very proud of my players, very proud of this country, very proud of everybody.”

“We played an attacking style against a team that excels on the counter so you have to task risks,” he added. “We took a lot but we weren’t rewarded.”

Renard said Morocco will attempt to bow out with “flying colours” against Spain next Monday, as he reflected fondly on his time in charge of the Atlas Lions. 

“Two years ago we started a new journey, we were ranked 81st. I think we are ranked 41st now.” said the Frenchman, who took over in February 2016. 

“We qualified for the World Cup after 20 years and showed we can play football.”

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