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
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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.


Sarfraz Ahmed happy after Pakistan fight back against Australia in Abu Dhabi

Updated 16 October 2018
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Sarfraz Ahmed happy after Pakistan fight back against Australia in Abu Dhabi

  • Pakistan captain scores 96 after criticism having made just 74 runs in previous six Test innings.
  • Australia closed the day at 20 for two, trailing by 262 runs.

ABU DHABI: Pakistan skipper Sarfraz Ahmed said he was happy that he responded to pressure from all sides with a brilliant 96 on Tuesday on the first day of the second Test against Australia.
The 31-year-old added 147 runs for the sixth wicket with opener Fakhar Zaman — who also scored 96 — to lift Pakistan from a precarious 57 for five to 282 all out at Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Australia closed the day at 20 for two, trailing by 262 runs with eight wickets in hand.
After his below-par 15-run innings and weak wicketkeeping in the first Test which ended with his team unable to turn a strong position into a victory, Sarfraz faced calls for his sacking as Test captain.
“Yeah the pressure was there, definitely,” said Sarfraz, who had made just 74 runs in the his six previous Test innings.
“A lot of it. You know it’s coming from all corners. Somebody is saying leave Test cricket, somebody is saying leave captaincy, some are saying leave him out of the team.
“When all this happens and you score runs then it’s a bit of relief and then to do it in a situation where you were 57 for five and in a really bad shape...”
Sarfraz said Pakistan had fought back admirably having seen Australia spinner spinner Nathan Lyon had rocked Pakistan in the morning, reaching lunch with figures of four for 12.
“It’s good that we scored 282 and then got two wickets, including that of Usman Khawaja because he can play a long innings, so I think it has become even for both the teams now,” said Sarfraz.
Sarfraz praised Zaman, who is playing his first Test.
“Fakhar played a brilliant knock and I got very good confidence from him because I like that the other batsmen rotate the strike and he did that and played brilliantly in his first match.
“He deserved credit for doing so well.”
The first Test in the two-match series ended in a draw in Dubai last week.