PROFILE: Can Morocco upstage Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the World Cup?
Morocco go into the 2018 FIFA World Cup as arguably Africa’s strongest competitors‚ rejuvenated under suave French coach Herve Renard‚ who has a history of getting the best out of teams from the continent.
Renard led Zambia to an unlikely Africa Cup of Nations title in 2012‚ before following that up with success for Ivory Coast in 2015‚ but now faces his biggest challenge yet on the global stage.
He has led the side on an 18-game unbeaten run‚ but at the World Cup they will face another level of competition after their opener against Carlos Queiroz’s Iran on Friday.
The north Africans will face Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal on June 20‚ before closing their pool campaign against 2010 champions Spain on June 25.
The European sides are naturally heavy favourites to advance to the second round‚ but Morocco have a steel about them that could see them spring a surprise.
That includes the Dutch-born quaintet of Mbark Boussoufa‚ Karim El Ahmadi‚ Hakim Ziyech and the Amrabat brothers – Nordin and Sofyan – who are all likely to feature heavily in the side.
Most of their players are drawn from European leagues‚ including captain Medhi Benatia at Juventus and Real Madrid defender Achraf Hakimi.
Ziyech is something of an enigma‚ both loved and hated at Ajax Amsterdam‚ where he was named Player of the Season in the past campaign‚ but also at times drew the ire of the boo-boys at the club.
He is one of many who are hoping to use the stage as a platform to push for a move to one of Europe’s elite leagues‚ providing some personal ambition over national team pride.
Renard feels his side’s preparations have been good‚ with wins over Serbia‚ Uzbekistan‚ Slovakia and most recently Estonia on Friday‚ to go with a draw against Ukraine.
In that time his side scored nine goals and conceded just three‚ but he knows the level is a step up against Portugal and Spain.
“The important thing is to keep our way of working.
"It’s about making defensive adjustments‚” he said.
The only injury concern at this stage for the Atlas Lions revolves around Fenerbahçe defender Nabil Dirar‚ who is battling a knee complaint.
Morocco will be appearing at their fifth World Cup finals‚ but first for 20 years since they featured in France 1998.
They debuted in 1970 in Mexico‚ before their most successful tournament to date in 1986‚ which was also hosted by the Mexicans.
There they topped a pool that also included England‚ Poland and Portugal‚ beating the latter 3-1 having drawn 0-0 in their other two games.
That meant a second round clash with eventual finalists West Germany‚ who scraped to a 1-0 success after an 88th minute goal from legend Lothar Matthaus.
They exited in the first round in the 1994 and 1998 tournaments.