World Cup 2018: Morocco Preview
With Spain and Portugal also in Group B, the Moroccos will find it tough to qualify for the next round.
Maybe it’s the crisp white shirts. Maybe it’s the rugged jaw and tousled blonde locks. Or maybe it’s his proven record of overachieving with middling African nations.
Either way, Herve Renard is one of the doyens of football on the Old Continent.
The chiselled Frenchman had already worked wonders with Zambia and Cote D’Ivoire by the time he was appointed Morocco boss in 2016.
The Atlas Lions last qualified for the World Cup in 1998, when Salahaddin Bassir was fed by the prompting of Youssef Chippo and the bearded jinkery of Mustafa Hadji.
Route to the finals
The 49-year old waltzed through qualifying, with his team finishing unbeaten in a strong Group C containing dangerous Malian and Ivorian sides.
A magnificent victory over the latter in Yaoundé was the hallmark fixture of this campaign, with goals from Nabil Dirar and Mehdi Benatia consigning the West Africans to their first World Cup show in over a decade.
Renard will play to Morocco’s strengths in deploying a silky 4-1-4-1.
The North Africans are bursting with ball-carrying talent, even in the wing-back positions. Dirar and Real Madrid’s Achraf Hakimi are far more comfortable offensively than they are on the back foot.
Nordin Ambrabat – having just completed an impressive season at Real Betis – will be key alongside Feyenoord stalwart Karim El Ahmadi in midfield.
Younes Belhanda was second only to Olivier Giroud in his importance to Montpellier’s unlikely Ligue 1 triumph in 2012, and he will be aching to thread passes together for the likes of Mbark Boussoufa and Khalid Boutaib’s runs ahead of him.
Hakim Ziyech might live up to the Moroccan footballing archetype, but make no mistake – the Ajax man is the real deal.
Fresh from another barnstorming season, nine goals and 18 assists have placed him on the watch-list of every self-respecting big club on the continent.
Ziyech isn’t one for aimless passes or cross-field balls. If given space and time on his left foot, he will glide directly into the opponents’ terrified backline, dispatching defenders hither and thither with his mesmeric dribbling.
His decision making is excellent too; Ziyech knows when to embarrass teams and when to put them out of their misery. He needs to turn up if Morocco harbour any hopes of causing an upset.
There’s no getting away from it. Morocco have been placed in, arguably, the tournament’s most lopsided group. European champions Portugal and perennial glory-hunters Spain offer the stiffest of resistance.
A result, then, will be crucial in the opening fixture against Iran in St.Petersburg. Team Melli’s last World Cup was marred by off-field controversy in 2006, so Carlos Queiroz will be hoping that success on the pitch provides a lasting distraction.
Morocco simply have to beat the Persians, but to do so Mehdi Benatia needs to keep Alireza Jahanbakhsh under wraps. The AZ striker has enjoyed a phenomenal year in the Eredivisie, with Sardar Azmoun likely to cause Renard’s attack-heavy formation some severe headaches.
Provided they get a result in their first game, the fixture with Portugal five days later takes on an epic importance.
Fernando Santos’ side are far stronger than the one which captured the European title two years ago, with emerging talents like Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes being more than capable of derailing Moroccan hopes single-handedly.
Anything less than a win is moot for Renard’s charges, with Spain looking desperately strong for the final fixture in Kaliningrad.
Morocco have performed manfully to reach the tournament, but a route into the next round looks nigh-on impossible. The Iberians are simply too strong, with Spain unlikely to endure the kind of collapse that ruined their last World Cup appearance.
If the Atlas Lions can beat Iran, the clash with Portugal at the Luzniki will be a deal-breaker.
Santos’ dour tactics could play right into the hands of Morocco’s midfield wizards, but they could foil them completely too. Either way, it will be absolutely intriguing.