Atlas Lions ready to roar: Morocco face tough task against the Ivory Coast to make it to Russia

A Rachid Aliou strike was enough for Morocco to send the Ivory Coast out of this year’s African Cup of Nations. The Atlas Lions will be hoping for a repeat today. (AFP)
Updated 12 November 2017
0

Atlas Lions ready to roar: Morocco face tough task against the Ivory Coast to make it to Russia

DUBAI: Morocco assistant manager Mustapha Hadji insists World Cup qualification will mean just as much to the Atlas Lions’ foreign-born stars as it will to the players and fans based in the country.
Herve Renard’s side are just one game away from reaching a first World Cup since France ‘98; a draw against the Ivory Coast in Abidjan today will be enough to book a spot at next year’s finals in Russia. However, defeat will mean it is their opponents who will make it to the showpiece.
Renard has transformed the North Africans’ fortunes since taking the reins in February last year with the turnaround in no small part down to a legion of players with Moroccan heritage.
Of the 26-man squad selected for the Ivory Coast game just seven were born in Morocco, with only five currently playing in the country. There are 10 players born in France included, plus six from the Netherlands, two from Spain and one from Canada.
And though this raises some questions about diluting the identity of the side, assistant boss Hadji — himself a France Under-21 international before switching his allegiance to Morocco at senior level — believes the quality of the foreign-born players has been integral to the improvements on the pitch.

“I was probably the first player (who grew up in France) to choose Morocco and it comes down to what is in your heart,” Hadji told The Guardian this week. “It’s not about money or anything else – you play for your own country and represent all your family. I’m really happy with the choice I made and to be able to help the current generation.
“When you have players like them coming to play for their own country it makes a big difference. We have been able to mix together the best of the players from overseas and those who grew up in Morocco.”
Two of those Moroccan-both players, Ismail Haddad and Achraf Bencharki, head into the decisive qualifier on the crest of a wave — having helped Wydad Casablanca end their 25-year wait for a CAF Champions League crown last week.
But Bencharki is unlikely to start in Abidjan, with Khalid Boutaïb of Turkish side Yeni Malatyaspor generally favored up front so far during this campaign.
The trip to Ivory Coast represents the Atlas Lions’ biggest test yet under Renard. But there is plenty of reason for optimism. Morocco held The Elephants both home and away in 2014 World Cup qualifying and a repeat of the 1-1 draw in Abidjan four years ago would be enough to make the tournament this time.
More recently, Renard beat his former employers 1-0 at the 2017 African Nations Cup in January, the victory ultimately leading to Morocco reaching the quarter-finals while Ivory Coast went home early.
This time, though, the stakes are even higher. It is time for this talented group of players, with its patchwork of birthplaces, to put Moroccan football back on the world stage.


AS IT HAPPENED: Al-Hilal 2 v. Al-Ittihad 1 - Saudi Super Cup, London

Updated 19 August 2018
0

AS IT HAPPENED: Al-Hilal 2 v. Al-Ittihad 1 - Saudi Super Cup, London

LONDON: Carlos Eduardo ended months of anguish and heartache by firing Al-Hilal to Saudi Super Cup glory at a bouncing Loftus Road stadium on Saturday night.

Eduardo has been out of action since suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury in December and he must have wondered at times if he would ever play again, let alone reach the exalted level he was playing at pre-injury.

But the Brazilian playmaker announced his return to full fitness, upstaged debutant Omar Abdulrahman, and showed there is plenty of life left in him yet by scoring the first goal after 35 minutes. The way he frenziedly celebrated, with a knee slide to the corner flag, summed up just how much this goal meant to him and was clearly a release of months of frustration. 

Gelmin Rivas made the game safe for Al-Hilal with a second just past the hour mark and although Karim El-Ahmadi pulled one back for the Tigers, there could be doubting the Saudi Pro League champions were worthy winners of this full-blooded encounter. They were just too quick, too nimble and too potent for an Al-Ittihad side who are looking to rebuild under new coach Ramon Diaz.

Al-Ittihad gave it a good go and huffed and puffed, but Al-Hilal just had too much quality in attack to the extent that they were able to leave the prolific Omar Khribin on the bench for 75 minutes. It will take some side to prevent Al-Hilal from winning the league title for a third straight season on this evidence.

They were by far the busier and more progressive of the two sides early on and Al-Ittihad were struggling to keep up with their slick movement. Indeed, crude fouls on Eduardo and Salem Al-Dawsari neatly summed up how they were desperately clinging on to Al-Hilal's coat tails. 

Al-Ittihad's defenders had their work cut out with the fluid movement of Al-Hilal's attacking players and it look a last-ditch tackle from the excellent Hassan Moaz to prevent Rivas from connecting with Andre Carrillo's low centre and scoring what would have been a certain goal after ten minutes. From the resulting corner, Al-Dawsari, unmarked and unchallenged, should have buried a header from an Abdulrahman corner, but he failed to even find the target.

Then Al-Dawsari, back from a loan spell at Villarreal, saw a shot deflected wide when he really should have played in Yasir Al-Shahrani on the overlap. But the goal you felt was coming and it arrived on 35 minutes, Eduardo ramming home a cross from Carrillo. It was the least Al-Hilal deserved for their vibrant start. 

The nearest Al-Ittihad came to troubling Ali Al-Habsi in the Al-Hilal goal was when Wanderson looped a header straight into his arms. It wasn't exactly one-way traffic, but it wasn't far off.

Diaz needed to make a change at half-time as Al-Ittihad were being over-run, but instead of shoring things up, the coach made an attacking switch, bringing on Serbian summer Aleksandar Pesic to spearhead the attack. It was a bold move.

It did nothing to shift the momentum, really. Just four minutes into the half, Al-Hilal were on the front again, Mohamed Kanno latching onto a through ball from Al-Dawsari to fire a rising half volley at Assaf Al-Qarni. You felt it was only a matter of time before Al-Hilal scored against and they did so on 62 minutes, Rivas rounding Al-Qarni to roll the ball into the empty net. The Al-Hilal fans went wild, believing that was game, set and match. The trophy, they felt, was theirs.

But Al-Ittihad refused to roll over and just minutes after Jonas forced a flying save from Al-Habsi, Moroccan international El-Ahmadi pulled one back. It was now game on with 23 minutes remaining.

Yet Jorge Jesus, the Al-Hilal coach, showed no signs of shutting up shop and he went for a third instead of holding onto the 2-1 lead by introducing Khribin for Abdulrahman with 15 minutes left. It made for a thrilling finale, as both sides threw the kitchen sink at each other, but Al-Hilal held on to win the trophy for the second time. 

STARTING LINE-UPS:

Al-Hilal: Al-Habsi; Al-Burayk, Botia, Al-Bulayhi, Al-Shahrani; Kanno, Abdulrahman; Carrillo, Al-Dawsari, Eduardo; Rivas.

Al-Ittihad: Al-Qarni; Moaz, Jurman, Hassan, Thiago; Jonas, El-Ahmadi, Villanueva, Wanderson, Al-Muwallad; Romarinho. 

------

20:15 - FULL-TIME: AL-HILAL 2 V. AL-ITTIHAD 1: No, they can't - and it's a first Super Cup trophy for Al-Hilal! Omar Abdulrahman wins his first trophy with the Saudi club and it's the Blues who take the first title of the year...

20:00: GOAL - Karim El-Ahmadi gives Al-Ittihad hope of a famous come-back...can they turn this match around?

19:55: GOAL - 2-0 to the Saudi champions, Rivas with the goal this time...

19:45: It's still 1-0 to Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad pressing to get back into the game, but nothing doing so far...

 

19:35: We're under way in the second half, and Al-Hilal are looking comfortable. Will it be back-to-back league titles for the 'Crescent' this season?

HALF-TIME: It's Al-Hilal who go into the break ahead, thanks to that Eduardo goal.

19:05: GOAL - Al-Hilal take the lead in the 35th minute through Eduardo after he smashes home from a Carillo cross. Advantage to the champions of Saudi Arabia...

19:00: Ever wondered what Loftus Road and west London looked like? The Saudi Super Cup official channel have made this very handy video...

18:55: Both teams working hard, but little end-product from either. Tentative start from both sides.

18:45: Look who's working tonight's game - former Chelsea and England star John Terry and Egypt's Mido...

 

 

18:40: Cagey start from both sides, crowd in good voice. Al-Hilal looking slightly better, but Al-Ittihad's fans making more of the noise...

18:20: Excitement is building in west London ahead of the Saudi Super Cup, with both teams looking for their first title...

 

 

 

18:15: Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad go head-to-head in the Saudi Arabian Super Cup at Loftus Road in west London on Saturday evening, follow live updates here with Arab News.