Experience of playing knock-out football
1976 African Cup of Nations champions Morocco cemented their place at the World Cup after finishing top of their qualifying pool, beating off interest from Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali. There wasn’t too much fuss about it either, three wins and three draws leaving them on 12 points, four better than the chasing pack.
They’ll encounter much more trouble when landing in Russia after organisers pulled them out of the hat alongside Portugal, Spain and Iran. Atlas Lions reached the round of 16 back in 1986 but it would be a brave fan who backed them to repeat that this year. Bookies expect them to fall at the group stage – priced 1/7 or there’s 750/1 on them winning the competition outright.
Morocco start with a match against Iran and that looks to be their best chance of landing three points. Get the desired result and maybe hold on for a draw vs Portugal or Spain and who knows what could happen. Here’s three men who will need to be on top of their game in round one…..
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Benatia will be kept busy
Followers of Dutch football will know this midfielder as the man currently employed by Ajax in the Eredivisie. The 25-year-old number 10 is an important player in the middle of the park, mixing flair with tough tackling but it’s his ability at dead-ball situations that will make him dangerous in June. Morocco won’t get too many opportunities to get themselves forward against the more fancied duo in the pack so Ziyach will be asked to make any free-kicks around the danger zone count.
Chipped in with his share of goals for Ajax this season, scoring six in seven near the start of the season and he appears to be hitting form at the right time too, bagging five in his last 14, including a double in a 5-2 win for his team over Sparta Rotterdam earlier this year. He’s 5/1 favourite at Bet Victor to top score for Morocco and that’s no surprise.
Boutaib has already scored seven goals in his first 15 competitive matches for the national team and he will be expected to build on that with the chances that come his way in this competition. The 31-year-old is an experienced sort having played for no less than 10 club sides during his career with Strasbourg being the most notable of them to European fans. Banged in 20 goals in 34 games for the Ligue 1 side and will be eager to catch the eye on this stage.
Those who kept tabs on Morocco’s campaign to date will recall Boutaib scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 win over Gabon last year and he was also on target vs Mali near the start of the season. In a better side we’d expect this man to go and grab the headlines but he’s more than good enough to help put Iran to the sword and that makes the 5/1 on him to score more World Cup goals than his teammates worth a second look.
At the other end of the park you’ll find Benatia a much busier recruit than the two mentioned above with the centre-back set for a few tough matches alongside his fellow defenders. The French-born player has played for some big names in Europe including Marseille, Udinese, Roma, Bayern Munich and is now back in Serie A with champions Juventus. That experience will prove crucial with the captain demanding calmness in the ranks.
Benatia played for France at under-18 level before switching to Morocco where he has won 53 caps, scoring two goals. A 6ft 2inches tall he’s a problem in the opposition penalty box at corners but we don’t expect him to get forward too often and he’ll prefer to hang back and keep his house in order. If Benatia plays to the best of his ability Morocco could pick up points.