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World Cup preview: Morocco – Sports Mole

World Cup preview: Morocco – Sports Mole

Ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole assesses Morocco’s chances as they return to the tournament after a 20-year absence.

Morocco will be making a long-awaited return to the biggest stage in football this summer when they travel to Russia for the 2018 World Cup.

The Atlas Lions have not graced the tournament for 20 years, last making an appearance at France 1998 when they boasted the likes of Noureddine Naybet, Mustapha Hadji and Youssef Chippo amongst their ranks.

© Reuters

The class of 2018 will be hopeful of writing their own names into the Moroccan history books this summer as they bid to fare better than that famous team from the 1990s by making it through the group stages in Russia.

Here, Sports Mole assesses Morocco’s chances at this summer’s World Cup.


GROUP

The draw was not kind to Morocco as they were handed arguably the most difficult group to qualify from, and it would take a major upset along the way for Herve Renard‘s side to reach the knockout rounds.

World Cup Group B

Reigning European champions Portugal and the much-fancied 2010 World Cup winners Spain will be the favourites to claim the top two spots, with Morocco’s best hope of upsetting the natural order perhaps being to build momentum in their opening match against Iran.

Victory in Saint Petersburg on June 15 – coupled with a defeat for either Portugal or Spain when they face off later that day – could raise belief that Morocco could nick something from at least one of their subsequent two games and pip one of the more favoured teams to a top-two spot.

MOROCCO FIXTURES

June 15: Morocco vs. Iran (4pm, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg)
June 20: Portugal vs. Morocco (1pm, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow)
June 25: Spain vs. Morocco (7pm, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Morocco’s qualifying campaign began in November 2015 with a 2-0 win in their knockout tie against Equatorial Guinea despite playing half of that match with 10 men, and that proved to be enough to send them through on aggregate even after defeat in the second leg.

Indeed, the goal they conceded in their 1-0 second-leg defeat proved to be the only goal they conceded throughout qualifying, keeping clean sheets in all six of their group games during the next stage of qualification.

Morocco were the only team to go through that stage without conceding, and one of only four teams to remain unbeaten in the group section too, with three wins and three draws from their six outings.

The group began with back-to-back goalless stalemates, but a 6-0 win over Mali in September 2017 set Morocco on course for the World Cup and subsequent victories over Gabon and Ivory Coast in their final two games saw them finish top of a difficult group.


RECENT FORM

It has been more than a year since Morocco tasted defeat in any competition, and they will go into the World Cup hoping to extend an 18-match unbeaten streak.

Since booking their place at Russia 2018, Morocco have won nine and drawn two matches, including picking up the African Nations Championship title in February of this year.

Morocco players celebrate after scoring during an international friendly with Slovakia in June 2018© Reuters

Experience against World Cup-level opposition has been fairly scarce in that time – just two of their 11 games have come against teams that will also be in Russia – although they have won both of those.

The three warm-up games directly before the tournament yielded a draw and two wins, beating Slovakia and Estonia already this month following a goalless stalemate with Ukraine.


SQUAD

WC - Morocco

Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger).

Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolves), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (Lille).

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), Youssef En Nesyri (Malaga).


STAR PLAYER – Mehdi Benatia

Morocco defender Mehdi Benatia in action during his side's international friendly with Ukraine in May 2018© Reuters

As their qualifying record proves, Morocco are very strong defensively but not quite as effective at the opposite end of the field.

Keeping out the talents that Spain and Portugal posses will be an extremely tough task, though, and that is something Morocco will likely have to achieve if they are to snatch second place.

This will therefore be a big tournament for Mehdi Benatia, who has big-game experience for Juventus and former club Bayern Munich, and is very much the heartbeat of this side.

Benatia turned down advances from Algeria and France to instead represent the nation of his father at senior level, and he now has a chance to further enhance his reputation among supporters.

Powerful and good on the ball, the 31-year-old will hope to build on the record that saw the Atlas Lions keep six clean sheets in qualifying against some formidable opponents.


MANAGER – Herve Renard

Morocco manager Herve Renard on May 31, 2018© Reuters

Renard may not be an internationally-renowned manager, with his highest-profile European job being a forgettable six-month spell at Lille, but he has enjoyed significant success in Africa.

The 49-year-old steered Zambia to an unlikely Africa Cup of Nations triumph in 2012 – their first ever title – and three years later he repeated the feat with Ivory Coast.

In doing so, the Frenchman became the first person to win the Africa Cup of Nations with two different countries, and his stock on the continent rose further still when he guided Morocco to their first World Cup since 1998.

A one-time Cambridge United boss in the fledging years of his coaching career, Renard took charge of Morocco in 2016 and has a contract until the Qatar World Cup in 2022.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Last 16 (1986)

Morocco players in action against Scotland during the 1998 World Cup© Reuters

Russia 2018 will only be Morocco’s fifth appearance at a World Cup, and their first this century having last qualified 20 years ago.

Only once in their previous four campaigns have Morocco made it out of the group stages, doing so in 1986 when they finished above England, Poland and Portugal to top Group F before losing to eventual runners-up West Germany in the last 16.

Morocco only scored in one of their four matches at that tournament, and they failed to qualify at all in 1990 before returning to the competition in 1994 and 1998 – the only time they have reached back-to-back World Cups.

Defeat in all three matches in 1994 saw them finish bottom of their group, but four years later they only narrowly missed out on a place in the knockout rounds after beating Scotland 3-0 in their final group game.

The Atlas Lions first reached the World Cup in 1970, but they failed to win a single game on their way to finishing bottom of a group including West Germany, Peru and Bulgaria.

Overall Morocco have played 13 games at the World Cup, winning two, drawing four and losing seven of those.


PREDICTION

Morocco’s form in the build-up to this tournament suggests they will be a difficult team to beat, but they have been unfortunate with the draw and it is difficult to see them beating either Spain or Portugal to one of the top two spots in Group B.

VERDICT: Third in Group B

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