In 2015, Guus Hiddink tried to call Hakim Ziyech up to his Netherlands squad but later that year the talented attacking midfielder announced he would be representing Morocco rather than the country of his birth.
This lead to Dutch legend Marco van Basten labelling him “stupid” to choose Morocco when he was in contention to play for the Netherlands. It turned out to be a masterstroke, however, as Ziyech made van Basten eat his words by helping Morocco qualify for their World Cup in 20 years, whilst the Netherlands missed out.
Ziyech’s attitude was questioned by Morocco coach Herve Renard which lead to the Netherlands born star quitting the national team, only for Renard to fly to Amsterdam to talk him around.
And there’s a reason Renard was willing to lose face by asking Ziyech to reconsider. Possessing a stunning left foot and excellent dribbling ability, the 25-year-old offers Renard dynamism but with better end product than Southampton’s enigmatic Sofiane Boufal on that left-hand side.
With Morocco facing Spain and Portugal in the group stage, as well as Iran, what a fantastic opportunity for Ziyech to announce his talents to the watching world.
Ajax’s number ten is thought of by many as the best player in the Eredivisie.
Having signed from FC Twente at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Ziyech has regularly wowed crowds with his skill and technique.
Despite missing out on the title by only four points, this wasn’t a vintage season for Ajax but Ziyech was a highlight throughout.
The criticism that has come from Ajax supporters this year is that with his talent he should be doing more. However, his return of 34 goals or assists this season for club and country would suggest his output is more than satisfactory.
He scored outstanding free kicks against NAC Breda and Excelsior, a stunning effort from range against Roda, and a brilliant solo goal and finish against Sparta. Perhaps some would criticise his lack of goals against PSV or Feyenoord this season.
It looks very much that as is usually the case with Ajax, they will have to sell their key players and it looks like Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech will be the two stars to depart this time around.
There are rumours of a move to Roma but, if that doesn’t transpire before the World Cup finals, this could be the chance to showcase his talent on a wider stage and probably earn Ajax a few more millions while he’s at it.
Morocco drew three of their six group games in qualifying 0-0, it was Hakim Ziyech that finally scored their first goal of the campaign, with his brace setting them on their way to a 6-0 victory over Mali.
He actually featured for the Netherlands at under 19, 20 and 21s level before he switched his allegiance, but has been making up for lost time, scoring eight goals in just 15 caps so far.
He made his debut for Morocco back in 2015 against Ivory Coast, and 15 caps probably seems not very many for a man of his talent given that he is 25.
A temperamental player, he may feel that this could be his one chance to showcase himself at a World Cup.
Likely to play on the left of a 4-2-3-1 for Morocco, even though he would maybe prefer to play centrally or on the right, Ziyech is probably seen by Renard as being more capable of playing across the attack than Nordin Amrabat or Younes Belhanda.
Ziyech demonstrated his ability to press effectively whilst playing under Peter Bosz at Ajax, particularly in their 2017 run to the Europa League final.
Morocco have some big physical players that are strong in the air, like Aziz Bouhaddouz and Mehdi Benatia, and Ziyech’s ability to whip in accurate set pieces could be a real weapon for Morocco in Russia.
He is also accomplished when it comes to having the vision to spot a quick through ball that can unlock a defence.
Don’t expect him to stick to that left flank as he will drift inside looking for opportunities to shoot and be creative. Will need to be disciplined and follow Renard’s instructions. But his intelligence is one of the reasons he is in the team ahead of Boufal
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