World Cup Preview – Morocco
Best WC Performance: Round of 16 – 1986
Current World Ranking: 41
After a 20-year absence, North African country Morocco return to the World Cup this summer.
Russia will be the Atlas Lions fifth appearance at a World Cup Finals, after 1970, 1986, 1994 and 1998. Their best finish to date was an exit in the last 16 in 1986, having fell at the group stage in each of their other campaigns.
Morocco’s efforts in the African Cup of Nations have been just as inconsistent. The title in 1976, a second-place finish in 2004 and a third place in 1980 scattered among several group stage exits and failed qualifications.
Having watched Mediterranean rivals Algeria qualify for the last two World Cups, 2018 will be extra special for Morocco knowing they did not make it this time round.
Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger)
Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolves), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir), Badr Benoun (Raja Casablanca), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (LOSC)
Midfielders: M’barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (Getafe), Amine Harit (Schalke 04)
Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (Saint Pauli), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes), Mehdi Carcela (Standard de Liege), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax)
Vs Iran 16:00, 15.06.18 Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Vs Portugal 13:00, 20.06.18 Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Vs Spain 19:00, 25.06.18 Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Manager – Herve Renard
Frenchman Herve Renard is not a big name in football outside Africa. Within Africa however, Renard is seen as something of a wizard.
The former defender moved into management in 1999, but is best known for being the first coach to win the African Cup of Nations with two different countries, having been victorious with Zambia in 2012 and the Ivory Coast in 2015.
After a brief spell at Lille, Renard returned to Africa with Morocco in 2016 and guided them to their first qualification in 20 years, cementing his status as a legendary figure in a third Africa nation.
Despite being ranked 84th in the world at the start of CAF qualifying, Morocco won a bye to the second round as one of the top 27 ranked CAF nations.
In the second round, they faced Equatorial Guinea over two legs. Morocco won the first leg 2-0 at home, but only scraped through after losing the second leg 1-0.
In the third round they were drawn in a group of four with Mali, the Ivory Coast and Gabon, with only the top nation securing qualification.
After five games, Morocco were unbeaten and one point ahead of the Ivory Coast, who they travelled to for the final fixture in what effectively became a winner takes all clash.
In Abidjan, goals from Nabil Dirar and Medhi Benatia defeated the Elephants and earnt the Atlas Lions top spot and qualification with it.
Captain – Medhi Benatia
Morocco’s current captain is Juventus defender Medhi Benatia. Now 31, the 6 ft 2 French-born centre half turned professional in 2005 with Ligue 1 giants Marseille. After spells at Udinese and Roma, he was snapped up by German powerhouse Bayern Munich, but he failed to live up to his €26m price tag and moved to Juventus soon after.
Since making his international debut for his father’s native Morocco in 2008, Benatia has won 54 caps. Immense in qualifying; his defence proved almost impenetrable, while he also scored in the decisive victory away to the Ivory Coast.
Danger man – Ayoub El Kaabi
Morocco have recently struggled to replace former Arsenal striker Marouane Chamakh and the presence he brought to the team.
Step up Ayoub El Kaabi. After topscoring in Botola 2 (Moroccan second division), the versatile attacker’s exploits continued in the first division, and won him a call up to the national team in January for the African Nations Championship. He grasped this opportunity with both hands, scoring nine times as Morocco won the title. He now lies on a record of 10 goals in eight fixtures, and is expected to lead the line for the Atlas Lions in Russia.
Young Player – Achraf Hakimi
On the fringes of Real Madrid’s first team, 19-year-old Right or Centre Back Achraf Hakimi will be given the opportunity to impress this summer. Pacey and confident on the ball, Hakimi is an exciting attacking full back who loves to bring the ball out of defence. In the same group as Spain and Portugal however, it will be his defensive ability which will be tested the most. Watch out for his battle against club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, which is set to be an enthralling duel.
Premier League Players
Three English based players will travel with Morocco this summer.
Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal will be joined by Roman Saiss of newly promoted Wolves, while Nordin Amrabat will return to Watford this summer after spending last season on loan in Spain with Leganes.
In addition to those three, Abdelhamid Sabiri enjoyed his debut season in English football with Huddersfield Town this season, but is yet to be involved in the international setup.
The odds are not in Morocco’s favour. To be in the same group as two of the world’s top 10 in Portugal and Spain is unfortunate, but not an impossible obstacle.
The Atlas Lions’ first fixture is against Iran, and you can’t help but feel that it is must win if Morocco are to stand any chance of progression. They then move on to face Portugal and Spain, and could go through with a point from those two games if results go their way.
Unlikely, but given their recent defensive record, if they can overcome Iran they are capable of causing a shock
Written by Sam Hanys.