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.


AS Roma chief: ‘We're hoping to spoil Mohamed Salah’s return in Liverpool showdown’

Updated 22 April 2018
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AS Roma chief: ‘We're hoping to spoil Mohamed Salah’s return in Liverpool showdown’

  • The Italian club sold Salah for just £36.9 million
  • Roma CEO Umberto Gandini says Salah can be the best, but hopes for Roma progress to the final

London: Had AS Roma waited just two more months, it is likely they would have been able to prise far more than £36.9 million ($55.4 million) from Liverpool for Mohamed Salah.
With his 41 goals in a remarkable debut season at Anfield, the Egyptian has become an absolute bargain given the subsequent fees paid for Neymar, who cost Paris Saint-Germain £200 million, and even Reds playmaker Philippe Coutinho, bought by Barcelona for £142 million.
But AS Roma chief executive Umberto Gandini (below) admits hindsight was a luxury they could not afford at that time with possible Financial Fair Play penalties requiring them to conclude a sale by the end of June — and Salah eager to test himself again in the English Premier League after previous struggles at Chelsea.
And there are no regrets, he says, despite admitting Salah is destined to be a world-beater and now stands between his former club and a place in the Champions League final.
“Momo was fantastic with us, gave us a big help on and off the pitch in many aspects,” reflected Gandini ahead of Roma’s semifinal first-leg tie at Anfield tomorrow.
“Maybe he would have been worth more had we waited, but we were in a situation where we had to do the deal in certain limits and no one could anticipate the market would go crazy as it did.
“But also I think yes, he wanted to prove something in the Premier League again. He’s a very proud person and had a lot of improvements in the two seasons with us.

“But he wanted to have another chance in the Premier League and deserved it. He was an excellent person with us, a dedicated professional and loved by all in the team and the fans. He will get a great reception when we play them.
“He’s in a situation now where he’s having a gifted season — anything he tries goes well. If I have to say he exceeded all the expectations, then yes, he’s overachieving by far.”
But Gandini is convinced Salah, 25, can get even better. During 23 years with AC Milan, where he was a director, he witnessed a trophy-laden period, including three Champions League titles, and worked with legends such as Paolo Maldini, Andriy Shevchenko and Kaka.
And Gandini told Arab News: “Momo can be at that best level. He’s proved it this season, he’s found consistency. This Liverpool team, this system is helping him blossom at the top level.
“He’s very unique. Someone like Kaka was more creative, but Momo is pretty much in the same class, wants to be one of the best in the world and deserves success.” Gandini, though, is hoping Roma can sour Salah’s reunion as the Serie A side bid to avenge a 1984 final defeat, where Liverpool upset them on penalties at their Stadio Olimpico home.
In 2005, Gandini suffered against the Reds with Milan as Liverpool famously came back from 3-0 down at halftime to claim success on spot-kicks in Istanbul.
“It’s part of the book of history,” he said. “With Milan, we had our revenge in 2007 and my account was settled. Now here’s the history of the Rome final in 1984. It’s what the club and city feels and we are now bonded for settling another account.”
Beating Barcelona by overturning a three-goal deficit in a dramatic last-eight second leg tie has certainly given the Giallorossi belief.
With Brazilian keeper Alisson — wanted by Liverpool and Real Madrid — striker Edin Dzeko and inspirational skipper Daniele De Rossi, Gandini said the squad has skill and spirit. “We have a great team of personalities and characters. De Rossi is one of the silent leaders but says the right words at the right time. For him after so long and the club it will be special to get to the final and win this trophy.
“Dzeko is a team player, fantastic. The way he played in Barcelona was a masterpiece.
“Alisson is in a class by himself in my opinion. I think he was born to be No. 1 in the world. With his calmness, quickness, dedication, he reminds me of Nelson Dida, another Brazilian I worked with at Milan. “It’s normal teams are linked, but he’s under contract and the club are not willing to let him go.”
And with plans approved for a new 55,000 stadium to be open by 2020, Roma want to keep their best players to challenge Europe’s elite.
“It’s a statement about what club president Mr.[James] Pallotta is doing with his ownership, it’s coming to fruition,” added Gandini.
“On one side we are on par with these teams, but the big, big difference is in terms of budget, to buy players and investment.
“When you look at the number of global brands in football they are concentrated on teams who are performing on the pitch. Hopefully we can grow more. We cannot be everyone’s favorite team, but can be the second favorite team.”

FACTOID

AS Roma in Europe

- Roma have only ever won one European trophy, the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1961. - Roma's heaviest defeats in Europe were both 7-1 - at home to Bayern Munich in 2014 and away to Manchester United in 2007. - Roma's nickname is the 'Giallorossi' - the 'Yellow and Reds'.