TEAM PROFILE: Morocco’s Atlas Lions ready to roar and create shocks at World Cup

Maintaining their defensive solidity will be key to whether the side can make the knockout rounds.
Updated 14 June 2018
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TEAM PROFILE: Morocco’s Atlas Lions ready to roar and create shocks at World Cup

  • Atlas lions are at their first World Cup for 20 years.
  • Placed in a tough group including Spain and Portugal, there is hope they can get to second round.

The side may not be as heralded as Egypt, and they may have been placed in the tough group containing Spain, Portugal and Iran, but of all the Arab sides it is perhaps Morocco who have the best chance of making a statement in Russia.

HOW THEY GOT THERE

Placed in a group with Ivory Coast, a side that had qualified for the past three World Cups, meant it was never going to be an easy group to escape from. But the Atlas Lions roared and made it to Russia without losing a match. Three wins and three draws meant they easily qualified and did so with some style securing their pace with a 2-0 win away in Ivory Coast.

MANAGER

Morocco were without a World Cup appearance in nearly 20 years and in the doldrums when Herve Renard turned up. But since he took his place in the dugout in early 2016 the fortunes of the Atlas Lions have taken a turn for the better. The Frenchman made the side more solid, and very tough to beat, as their current run of 18 games unbeaten illustrates. That run includes matches against fellow World Cup hopefuls Serbia, Nigeria, South Korea and Egypt. Only Belgium (19) and Spain (20) have a better record going into the tournament.

TACTICS

Renard is likely to go with a 4-2-3-1 formation, switching from 4-4-2 in defensive phases to 4-3-3 in attack. It is highly flexible and plays to the side’s strengths as well as the manager’s safety-first approach. There is a steel to the side. They may have been thrown into a tough group — European heavyweights Spain and Portugal, with the opener against Iran — but they still should not be dismissed as likely second-round participants. The team is packed full of experienced players, including the Dutch-born quintet of Mbark Boussoufa‚ Karim El Ahmadi‚ Hakim Ziyech and the Amrabat brothers – Nordin and Sofyan – who are all likely to feature heavily in the side. With the likes of Juventus’ Medhi Benatia and Real Madrid’s Achraf Hakimi also likely to start and it is clear that there is class to add to the experience and steel.

KEY MAN
Defensive solidity has never really been a problem for Morocco under Renard, so the big factor likely to determine if they can shock either Spain or Portugal is whether they can marry that safety-first approach with the ability to turn their counterattacks into goals. They will likely play with just one up front for long periods and the man tasked with finding the back of the net is Khalid Boutaib. He hit a hat-trick against Gabon in qualifying, and while opposition defenses in Russia will provide a much sterner test, the 31-year-old is determined to make his late start to international football (he only has 20 caps) count.

WORLD CUP HISTORY

This is the fifth time the Atlas Lions have made it to the World Cup, their best performance coming in 1986 when they got out of a group including England, Portugal and Poland to make it to the second round.
Their last appearance came 20 years ago, when even an impressive 3-0 win over Scotland and draw with Norway was not enough to see them make it to the knockout stages.

STRENGTHS

Only conceded one goal in qualifying and the defense will again be key to whether they can shock in Russia. If they can maintain that solidity then anything is possible. Victory against Iran on Friday is viewed as a must.

WEAKNESSES

It is hard to see how they are going to trouble oppositions defenses enough to put rivals on the back foot.


Al-Nassr ready to challenge for title after signing Brazilian Giuliano

Updated 21 August 2018
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Al-Nassr ready to challenge for title after signing Brazilian Giuliano

  • Riyadh club have not won the title since 2015 and have set their stall out to win it for the ninth time.
  • Brazilian Giuliano is the latest star to sign for Al-Nassr, joining Nigeria international Ahmed Musa.

LONDON: Al-Nassr are ready to challenge for the Saudi Pro League title after a busy summer in the transfer market and elsewhere. That is the message from the Riyadh club who have their sights set on reclaiming the title they last won in 2015.
The side finished third last season but under the energetic leadership of new president Saud Al-Suwailem, the eight time champions ended the transfer window on Monday by confirming the signing of former 
Brazilian international Giuliano from 
Fenerbahce for a fee of €10 million ($11.5 million).
It is the second biggest deal that Al-Nassr have done since the end of last season after the Ahmed Musa transfer, the Nigerian international arriving in early August from Leicester City Premier League. And having seen the 28-year-old attacking midfielder score 14 goals in the Turkish league last season, the club feel Giuliano is a great addition to their expanding squad.
Not only that, the club has brought in former Liverpool and Feyenoord goalkeeper Brad Jones, former Watford star and Morocco international Nordin Amrabat, Peru international defender Christian Ramos and also welcome back Saudi star Yahya Al-Shehri from his loan in Spain.
“We are very happy with the squad going into the new season,” an Al-Nassr official told Arab News.
“It was already a good one but we have strengthened in every area and especially have added some very exciting attacking players. If the coach can get the new signings to settle quickly then we could have a good season.”
There is no automatic demand for the title but an improvement on last season when Al-Nassr finished 12 points behind champions and Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal is required.
“We know that it won’t be easy as the top teams all look to be stronger after spending on some good talent from overseas,” added the official.
“We want to be challenging for the title, that is where we should be. It helps that we also have a coach that has done it before.”
For Al-Nassr, the return of Jose Daniel Carreno could be a game-changer. The Uruguayan tactician had a successful spell with the club and lifted the 2013 league title and the Crown Prince Cup in the same year. He returned to the club in March and his knowledge of Al-Nassr and the league is seen as vital.
“I think the changes to the team have been of great benefit,” Carreno said after last week’s 2-1 win at UAE side Al-Jazira in the Arab Champions Cup. “We have more firepower going forward and we will look to be aggressive and put teams on the backfoot, and press higher up the pitch than before.
“There is still work to do but we are moving to where we want to be. The league is going to be tough this time with Al-Hilal looking strong and signing players, and Al-Ittihad will not have the kind of season they had last time but we are looking forward to the challenge.”
There have been developments off the pitch too. President Al-Suwailem was appointed in April and has been working hard to improve standards at the club and increase revenues.
Earlier this month, the president went to the UAE to sign a four year sponsorship deal with Etihad Airlines that is reportedly worth SR50 million ($13.34 million) a year.
“There is more energy at all levels of the club,” said the official.
“Of course, it depends on what happens when the season starts but we can’t wait for the season to start.”