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.


Juan Antonio Pizzi picks little-known striker in search of more Saudi Arabia firepower

Updated 25 April 2018
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Juan Antonio Pizzi picks little-known striker in search of more Saudi Arabia firepower

  • Haroun Kamara has only played seven times for his club side
  • Green Falcons to play Algeria and Greece next month

Al-Qadisiyah’s 20-year-old striker Haroun Kamara has been given an opportunity to stake an unlikely claim for a World Cup spot after being surprisingly named in Juan Antonio Pizzi’s squad for a three-week training camp in Spain.
Kamara, who was born in Jeddah to Guinean parents, has only made seven league appearances for lowly Al-Qadisiyah, scoring four goals and claiming two assists, but he has been given the chance to shine in friendlies against Algeria on May 9 and Greece six days later and book a seat on the plane to Russia.
The youngster follows in the footsteps of the likes of Somalian-British Mukhtar Ali and Egyptian Ahmed Al-Fiqi as the Saudi Football Federation look to harness the pool of players born in the Kingdom to expats and increase the depth of the Green Falcons’ squad.
Pizzi has turned to Kamara having struggled to find options in attack. Hazza Al-Hazza and Mujahid Al-Mania, who were both given their debuts over the past six months, have failed to convince upfront, while Mohannad Assiri has just one goal for his country in more than seven years. Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, who has 26 goals in 33 internationals, is favorite to lead the line, but Pizzi needs more options in attack.
In goal, Yasir Al-Mosaileem, Mohammed Al-Owais and Fawaz Al-Qarni retain their place in the squad, while Al-Nassr’s Waleed Abdullah, who featured in the last squad, made way for Al-Hilal’s Abdullah Al-Mayouf. Only three goalkeepers will be selected for the final 23-man squad.
In defense, Ali Al-Bulayhi is in line for a debut, having established himself as a key player at the heart of Al-Hilal defense, while Mohammed Al-Burayk’s performances at right-back for the Blues earned him a recall to the squad for the first time under Pizzi, replacing Hassan Muath.
The three Hawsawis — Osama, Omar and Motaz — retain their places as do full-backs Yasir Al-Shahrani, Mansour Al-Harbi and Saeed Al-Muwallad. The backline is edging closer to taking shape as Mohammed Jahfali, who was first brought into the squad in March’s friendlies against Ukraine and Belgium, looks to have done enough to convince Pizzi to hand him a second opportunity.
There were no real surprises in midfield as the team is boosted by the recovery of two high-profile names. Nawaf Al-Abed makes his long-awaited return to the national team set-up, having suffered an injury in November’s ill-fated Portugal camp under the now departed coach Edgardo Bauza. Al-Abed’s Al-Hilal teammate, Salman Al-Faraj, is also back in the squad after recovering from a three-month injury lay-off.
Spain-based trio Fahad Al-Muwallad, Yahya Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari miss out due to club commitments.

 

Saudi Arabia squad for games against Algeria (May 9) and Greece (May 15)

Goalkeepers: Yasir Al-Mosaileem, Mohammed Al-Owais, Fawaz Al-Qarni, Abdullah Al-Mayouf.
Defenders: Osama Hawsawi, Motaz Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi, Mohammed Jahfal, Ali Al-Bulayhi, Mohammed Al-Burayk, Saeed Al-Muwallad, Yasir Al-Shahrani, Mansour Al-Harbi.
Midfielders: Abdulmalik Al-Khaibari, Abdllah Al-Khaibari, Ibrahim Ghaleb, Abdullah Otayf, Taisir Al-Jassim, Hussein Al-Moqahwi, Salman Al-Faraj, Nawaf Al-Abed, Mohammad Kanno, Mohammed Al-Kuwaikbi, Hattan Bahebri.
Forwards: Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, Mohannad Assiri, Haroun Kamara