2013 Cup of Nations preview: Morocco

Morocco's probable starting XI

Morocco's probable starting XI

It has been 37 years since Morocco last won the Cup of Nations, an astonishing longueur for a nation which was prominently tagged 'The Brazil of Africa' after impressively displaying their own interpretation of jogo bonito at the 1986 World Cup. But with an incessant supply of highly-rated French-born and Dutch-born talent, particularly attacking midfielders, filtering through to the Moroccan team, these are somewhat salivating times for the Atlas Lions. With a few more additions in the full squad, primarily in the backline, there is no reason why they can’t become one of the top teams in the world or even win the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil in 2015; relinquishing their position in the principal peloton of Africa’s perennial bottlers. Yet the assimilation of the superabundance of foreign-born attacking midfielders into African football has been an arduous process. Under Eric Gerets, the struggle to accommodate nearly all of their attacking midfielders into a single line-up left Morocco too top heavy, and ultimately cost the Belgian his job in the wake of the 2-0 defeat to Mozambique in the first leg of the play-offs. A the-whole-world-is-against-me feeling in the foreign-born/foreign-bred footballers has come to the fore as they’ve attempted to acclimatise to the climates and bobbly pitches they’re not accustomed to.

Geret’s successor Rachid Taoussi, who patrols the touchline in his black leather jacket akin to a restless Italian mob boss, has not only tried to attain balance by dropping several attacking midfielders, but also dropped chief underperformers.  Taoussi’s first game in charge, their second leg 4-0 mutilation of Mozambique, was so mind-blowingly pluperfect that it could have been considered wrong.

No Kharja for Morocco

The surprise omission of Houssine Kharja, integral in the overthrowing of Mozambique with his malevolent surges and Morocco’s most consistent performer in the last year, could either be a masterstroke or leave Morocco broke. Kharja’s captain armband has been passed on to Adil Hermarch and he will have Aston Villa’s Karim El Ahmadi for company. Mehdi Namli, a graceful playmaker who will start on bench, has been used deeper and may come on as a substitute.

The pulsating performances of Houssine Kharja will be a miss.

The pulsating Kharja is deemed obsolete in Taoussi’s system.

It’s Morocco’s hideous defence, individually rather than collectively, that makes it difficult to take them seriously. Goalkeeper Nadir Lamyaghri seems to go out of his way to look calamitous on every occasion he is called upon, and his back-ups aren’t much better; Lamyaghri merely makes the team on the basis that he commits fewer calamities. The centre-back partnership of Mehdi Benatia and Issam El Adoua is in the early stages of development. Any good work they do is undone by Zakaria Bergdich, a left back with great end-product in the final third but who commits positional gaffes which gift clear-cut chances to the opposition; Abdelhamid El Kaoutari may start ahead of him. Abderrahim Chakir and Abdelatif Noussir are fighting it out for the right-back spot, but it looks like the former will win the battle.

The appeal of Morocco lies in their perpetually interchanging attacking midfielders/wingers. When everything works, it can result in intoxicating computer-quick football. Abdelaziz Barrada’s consistency puts him in pole position to start, probably on the right wing. Younes Belhanda is the playmaker and can conjure moments of breath-taking quality, but there’s a huge question mark on his fitness after he strained a muscle in the training camp. The final spot is between Nordin Amrabat and Oussama Assaidi, with the latter more likely to start after impressive recent outings; if Belhanda doesn’t make it, they’ll both probably start.

The tremors of Kharja’s – and even Marouane Chamakh’s – exclusion may also be felt goal-scoring wise – he scored three of their four goals at the last Cup of Nations and was their designated penalty-taker. Coming into the tournament, none of the current strikers goalscoring records are remorseless enough at international level. Youssef El Arabi, who captained the France futsal team at U-21 level, will start as the striker. His futsal background adds further interchangeability into the attack, but he isn’t a natural goalscorer as his three goals in 15 caps record exudes; in fact, he is very wasteful. Fiorentina striker Mounir El Hamdaoui isn’t much better with three in 12, and domestic-based Abderrazak Hamdallah  has notched up goals at home and forced his way into the team with some lively performances, but it’d be asking a lot of him to step up.

The enigma of Morocco

Even with a new coach, the caveat with this Morocco side is they still show their amazing ability to render to nothingness. Instead of building on that Mozambique performance, they were, at times, thoroughly toyed with by Togo in a 1-0 home defeat in November, so much so that the crowd turned against them and started cheering every Togo pass in the final stages.

That run doesn’t seem to be coming to an end this time around but a run to, say, the semi-finals, is completely possible if one of the strikers can step up, and it’d bring a feel-good factor with the Atlas Lions hosting the tournament in two years time. Conversely, there is little experience in the squad and there is a great deal of duress to deliver. Morocco are arguably in a tougher group than last time around when they exited in the group stages. An early exit is fathomable.

The most important question remains, then: which Morocco will we see?

Coach: Rachid Taoussi

The avuncular Taoussi is well-acquainted with international football after managing Morocco’s youth teams in the 1990s. He steered Maghreb de Fes to a historical double in 2011, winning the CAF Confederations Cup, Africa’s equivalent of the Europa League, and the Throne Cup. He then masterminded a CAF Super Cup win last year over Esperance in a thrilling continental curtain-raiser.

Mehdi 'Moroccan Maldini' Benatia

Mehdi ‘Moroccan Maldini’ Benatia

Key man: Mehdi Benatia

With 25 caps, the Udinese centre-back is the second most experienced player in the squad. Nominated for the prestigious Serie A Oscar del Calcio award in the Defender of the Year category just over a year ago, Benatia will have to be vigilant to extinguish the fires that Bergdich and Lamyaghri will inevitably ignite.

One to watch Abdelaziz Barrada

The joint top scorer at the inaugural CAF U-23 championship in 2011 with three goals as Morocco reached the final, the Getafe attacking midfielder is, after the omission of Kharja, the most consistent player in the squad by quite some distance despite being a relative newcomer.

SFG Predicts…

Quarter-final exit.

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