Morocco Atlas-t (wayhey) make their long awaited return to world football’s top table this summer. It’s been twenty years since the Casablanckers came within a frenulum of making it out of a group that included would be champions Brazil in France. Will the class of 2018, summon the spirit of Mustapha Hadji, aul Naybet and the lads to go one better in Russia?
Manager: Hervé Renard
A cross between Francesco Totti and Jesus, Herv is a creature of beauty. Rumoured to have the tune of George Michael’s, “Careless Whisper” follow him every where he goes, after a humble playing career in the French lower leagues, his managerial journey has taken him to more African countries than Joseph Conrad. Fantastic achievement in guiding minnows Zambia to the African Cup of Nations in 2012, Renard remarkably repeated the feat with the Ivory Coast in 2014. Having guided Morocco to their first World Cup in twenty years, the Frenchman’s tournament football know-how will no doubt come in handy. It’ll have to, in what is, on the face of it, a tough draw against Spain, Iran and Euro ’16 winners Portugal.
Star Player: Mehdi Benatia
In a team that blends experience, in the likes of Belhanda, Amrabat and Boussoufa in their midfield, along with exciting prospects such as Lille’s Hamza Mendyl and Real Madrid’s Achraf in defence, the star of the show is undoubtedly captain Mehdi Benatia. After a less than pleasant time in Munich with Bayern, Benatia returned to Italy with Juve at the beginning of last season on loan, before the Italian champions exercised the right to purchase him at the beginning of this season after impressing. He has gone on to cement his place alongside Giorgio Chiellini at the heart of The Old Lady’s defence, and must bring his club form into the finals if Morocco are to progress beyond the group stage.
Road to Russia
Hard to believe that Morocco started their qualifying campaign as far back as November 2015, when they had to come through a two legged knockout affair with Equatorial Guinea. And they did – just – a two nil home first leg win being enough after being beaten one zip in the second leg. In the subsequent round robin series to determine Africa’s five qualifiers, The Lions were, if not thrown to their own kind, certainly found in the snake pit. Pitched in with Ivory Coast, Mali and Gabon, our heroes came through unbeaten, with the W’s coming in their last two games against Gabon and a winner takes all final game against Ivory Coast away. Impressive.
Record v Ireland: Won (0) Drawn(0) Lost (1)
In what was the final international match to be played at Dalymount Park, and Ireland’s first run out since coming home from Italia ’90 to half a million mummies and grannies at Dublin airport, it was a David Kelly goal that gave us the spoils. And I’ve really nothing else to say about it.
How will they go?
The fixture computer has thrown Morocco a lifeline in the form of the Iranians in the first game. Any chance of progress from the group stages will mean having to turn over their Middle-Eastern opponents on Matchday One, and hope that a winner emerges from the Spain-Portugal tie. Ride that hurdle and the men from the Maghreb will at least hold a fighting chance. A lot will depend on Herv-the-swerve-on-whomst-we-perv drawing on both, that tournament experience and, indeed, divinity itself. Probably the most blasphemous line I’ve ever coined.
Prediction: Just to miss out – 3rd on goal difference.