19:00 BST, Thursday 31st May, Stade De Geneve (Geneva, Switzerland)
Morocco’s pre-tournament preparations get underway on the back of a 15-match unbeaten run with a friendly against Ukraine in Geneva.
Remarkably, having become the first manager to win the Africa Cup of Nations with more than one country, this will be manager Herve Renard’s first World Cup. Winning the tournament with Zambia and Ivory Coast, Renard clearly knows how to prepare for a major tournament.
His Morocco side take on a Ukraine team that failed to qualify for Russia after pivotal defeats to Iceland and Croatia, and appear to be in a difficult period after finishing with zero points at Euro 2016 without scoring a goal.
Qualifying will be a tough ask for Morocco after drawing Spain and Portugal, so it will be crucial that they pick up all three points in their opener against Iran. These three warmup games against three of the stronger sides not to qualify will be key for them to go into that Iran game firing on all cylinders.
Morocco, who are using Geneva as a pre-World Cup base, also face Slovakia there on June 4. Whilst this will be Morocco’s first game at Stade de Geneve, Ukraine have played there once before, a 2-2 draw with Switzerland back in 2010 with Yevhen Konoplyanka scoring that day.
Manager Andriy Shevchenko could call upon the likes of Andriy Yarmolenko and Olexandr Zinchenko as well as four uncapped players.
Morocco possess one of the most talented squads in Africa with a mix of experienced campaigners like Mehdi Benatia and Karim El Ahmadi and gifted younger players like Sofiane Boufal and Real Madrid starlet Achraf Hakimi.
Unbeaten since 2016, Morocco favour a 4-2-3-1 approach, with a talented midfield trio in Karim El Ahmadi, Mbark Boussoufa and Younis Belhanda, as well as Juventus star Mehdi Benatia partnering newly promoted Wolves centre-back Romain Saiss.
Ajax winger Hakim Ziyech had to be convinced to return to national setup by Renard after announcing his retirement. He and Nordin Amrabat will provide a genuine threat from the flanks.
Shevchenko is looking to rebuild for Ukraine’s Nations League campaign and he has selected a very young defence for these friendlies.
Regulars Khacheridi and Rakitskiy are missing, which could mean an opportunity for young defenders like Artem Shabanov, Mykyta Burda and Pavlo Lukyanchuk.
Ukraine could field an exciting young midfield featuring Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and Viktor Kovalenko.
The flanks are likely to be occupied by Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko. The pair are both 28 and offer pace, trickery and genuine goal threat.
Up front will be either the experienced Yevhen Seleznyov or young Dynamo Kyiv forward Artem Besyedin.
Key Players: Mehdi Benatia (Morocco) vs Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)
Mehdi Benatia is by far the biggest name in the Morocco squad and will be a key figure in defence this summer if his country are to upset the odds.
The Juventus defender had a better season this year, featuring in eight Champions League matches and stepping up after the departure of Leonardo Bonucci.
Ukraine’s defence may be inexperienced but in Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko they possess two dynamic skilful wingers that would get into many of the 32 sides that will feature in Russia this summer. Benatia will have his hands full in marshalling his defence to keep them at bay.
Yarmolenko was signed by Borussia Dortmund to replace Ousmane Dembele and showcased his undoubted talented against Tottenham this season in the Champions League, scoring a beautiful curling left footed effort at Wembley in September, as well as assisting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the reverse fixture with an audacious back-heel.
Whilst Yarmolenko has been forced to deny rumours that he will be leaving Dortmund this summer after just one season, his value to his national team can’t be in doubt, having scored 33 goals for Ukraine from the wings, could cause 19-year-old Hakimi a lot of problems if it is to be the Real Madrid youngster that gets selected.
Who will partner Mehdi Benatia?
Although Manuel da Costa has more caps, Romain Saiss will feel he’s done enough in the latter end of the qualifying campaign to oust his older compatriot and take his place alongside the Juventus man.
Saiss has had a good season at Wolves, winning the Championship title under Nuno Espirito Santo, whilst Da Costa came 3rd in the Turkish Super Liga with Basaksehir.
Will Morocco continue their momentum?
As mentioned, Morocco are on a 15 match unbeaten run dating back to a 1-0 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Cameroon.
Whilst Renard will want to give his side a stern test ahead of the finals, he will be keen to strike the right balance in order to keep the momentum going and confidence high.
After keeping six clean sheets in qualifying, Morocco will be looking to keep Ukraine out.
Can Ukraine’s young defence handle Morocco’s creativity?
Without Khacheridi and Rakitskiy, Andriy Shevchenko will be relying on his young defence to keep the likes of Amrabat, Ziyech and Belhanda at bay.
The four centre-backs in his squad have just four caps between them and whilst Ukraine won’t be going to Russia, this should provide a good test for younger players that could be important for the next campaign.
Prediction: Morocco 2-0 Ukraine
Ukraine’s young defence and lack of motivation could prove costly against a Morocco side full of players that will be desperate to prove to Herve Renard that they should be in the starting XI come June 15 against Iran.
Dirar and Hakimi will have their hands full but are well capable of standing up to the test, with more to come when they face Portugal and Spain.
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