Undefeated during the qualifying campaign, and making their first World Cup finals appearance since France 1998, Morocco have been dealt a tough group, going up against international heavyweights Portugal and Spain. Having been the underachievers of the African footballing nations for the last two decades, new coach Herve Renard has been inspirational in restructuring the playing style of the team, with demonstrated success in qualifying. Although having a slow start, with just two points from their opening two games, the re-introduction of Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech had an immediate impact, with Ziyech scoring two goals in the 6-0 victory over Mali.
Such a large margin of victory was an anomaly during Morocco’s qualifying games, as they consistently struggle to develop an attacking presence that can trouble defences. On a positive note, the rest of their game is certainly solid. Juventus’ Mehdi Benatia is the rock at the centre of a very steady Moroccan defensive unit, however, it is expected that they will be tested to the max against the likes of Christiano Ronaldo. Morocco have the potential to grind their way out of this group, if they can hold either Spain or Portugal at bay for long enough to claim a point off them, however, their hopes of reaching the knockout stages may well be derailed in their game against Iran, if they fail to be a goal threat.
- Mehdi Benatia (Juventus) – Captain and leader of this Moroccan side, Benatia has had a successful domestic season with Juventus, and goes into the summer in good form. He recognises the enormity of the honour of leading his country in their first finals in 20 years, and should be able to step up to the plate in Russia. While he was the anchor in a steady defence during qualifying, I expect that the 30-year-old will struggle with containing Portugal’s Ronaldo.
- Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord) – The ex-Aston Villa midfielder, Ahmadi was central to the success of Morocco’s qualifying campaign and Feyenoord’s win of the Dutch league last season. Determined and experienced, Ahmadi has proven he can remain calm and composed on the ball. In possession, he is a player that can control the flow of the game, however, at 33 years of age, I expect that he will be no match for the dominance and speed of the Spanish midfield when the two nations meet in the group.
Herve Renard – Renard is an interesting character. After a relatively uneventful playing career, it was as an assistant coach to Claude le Roy’s Ghana in 2008 that he got his managerial break. Since then, he has won African Nations titles with Zambia in 2012 and the Ivory Coast in 2015. After a successful qualifying campaign, Renard has his work cut out if Morocco are to progress to the knockout stages this summer. His main concern has to be the lack of firepower up front. Perhaps a recall for Aziz Bouhaddouz, the target man at the African Nations Cup, could be the solution.