By Mark Gleeson
(Reuters) – Morocco improved markedly through the African qualifiers to emerge as the form team from the continent heading to the World Cup but their chances of making an impact in Russia were dealt a heavy blow at December’s draw.
The north Africans were paired with reigning European champions Portugal and their predecessors Spain in Group B, and open their campaign with a tough encounter against Iran.
They need to start with victory in St. Petersburg on June 15 to stand any chance of progress and then hope that they might steal some points off the two heavyweights in their next two group games.
Morocco will pose a tough challenge but might not have the depth to achieve their ambition of progressing beyond the first round.
Their squad draws heavily from the diasporas in Europe and benefits greatly from players born or brought up in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain.
The Dutch flair of Mbark Boussoufa, Hakim Ziyech and Nordin Amrabat pairs well with the likes of French-born Younes Belhanda and Mehdi Benatia. The ‘Atlas Lions’ have also seen Spanish-born Achraf Hakimi make a La Liga debut for Real Madrid this season.
But Morocco’s weaknesses in goal and at centre forward, where constant switches in selection reflect the ongoing search for a solution, pose a serious problem.
Admittedly, they came through the qualifying campaign without conceding a goal in the group phase and eliminated the Ivory Coast, who had been to the previous three World Cups.
It was particularly sweet for coach Herve Renard, who only two years earlier had led the Ivorians to the 2015 African Nations Cup title.
The flamboyant Frenchman, whose tight-fitting white shirt and bronzed physique make him look something like a beachboy rock star, has kept up his Midas touch on the continent, overcoming initial friction within the Morocco camp to forge a solid unit.
It will be Morocco’s fifth appearance at the finals but first since 1998 in France, where they beat Scotland 3-0 but still fell short of a place in the last 16.
They will look back even further to draw inspiration for their current predicament.
At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Morocco also had a seemingly near-impossible task but, against all odds, topped a group also containing England, Poland and Portugal.
(Reporting By Mark Gleeson; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)