DOHA: Morocco head into Saturday's last-eight clash with Portugal knowing they are only one step away from making history as Africa's first World Cup semi-finalists, but they face a buoyant opposition fresh from scoring six goals against Switzerland.
Walid Regragui's Moroccans are in uncharted territory after a surprise run which saw them finish top of Group F after beating Belgium and Canada before a stunning victory over Spain on penalties in the last 16.
The Atlas Lions are only the fourth African side to reach the quarter-finals -- after Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.
Morocco have enjoyed the vast majority of support from the crowds at all their games in Qatar and that is likely to be the case again at Al Thumama Stadium.
“I think it’s impossible for us to do this without the fans,“ said coach Regragui after knocking out Spain.
“A lot of fans came to Qatar from a lot of countries -- America, Europe, Morocco.
“They love their country and what I can tell them is this -- we can do nothing without them, I need them for the quarters and, hopefully, we’ll make history.”
There has still never been a country from outside Europe or South America in a World Cup final, but Morocco want to put that right.
“Why not aim for the sky? We needed to change and we needed to change our mentality,“ Regragui said after the group stage.
“We’re not going to stop here. We’re going to respect every opponent. But we are going to be very difficult opponents. So why not dream about lifting that trophy?”
Morocco are unbeaten in seven matches since Regragui took over from the sacked Vahid Halilhodzic in August.
They have conceded only once in that time, an own goal against Canada.
Morocco have overcome several injury problems to get this far in Qatar, with full-backs Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui carrying knocks for most of the tournament.
Centre-back Nayef Aguerd hobbled off injured against Spain, while captain Romain Saiss soldiered on despite picking up an injury during extra time.
“Since the start of the competition, we’ve been playing with a team that’s not 100 percent, that’s why it’s even more extraordinary,“ said Regragui.
“We’ve managed to create a family, and we feel that we have a people behind us.”
Portugal, Ronaldo 'united'
Spain struggled to create any clear-cut chances against the dogged North Africans but Portugal will be a different proposition after a fluid attacking display against the Swiss.
Coach Fernando Santos took the big decision to drop Cristiano Ronaldo to the bench, but it paid dividends as the superstar striker's replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick in the 6-1 rout.
Portugal are in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 2006, when they beat England on penalties before being knocked out by France.
They beat Ghana and Uruguay in the group stage before losing to South Korea, but without Ronaldo in the lineup, Portugal's attacking players appeared freer against Switzerland.
The 21-year-old Ramos stole the headlines, while Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix all impressed.
Media reports claimed Ronaldo threatened to leave the squad after being left out of the starting XI but he insisted the squad remain “united”.
“It’s a group too united to be broken by outside forces,“ he wrote on social media.
“A nation too courageous to let itself be frightened by any adversary. A team in the truest sense of the word, which will fight for the dream until the end.”
Santos had expressed his displeasure at Ronaldo's reaction to being substituted against South Korea but said he left the five-time Ballon d'Or winner out for tactical reasons on Tuesday.
Even as a replacement, Ronaldo, who has never scored in a World Cup knock-out match, could play a crucial role.
“Ronaldo and I never confuse the human and personal aspect with the coach and player relationship. He is a very important player to have in the team,“ said Santos.
The prize for the winners is a semi-final against England or France and the chance to reach the World Cup final for the first time. - AFP