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.


Heartbreak for Mohamed Salah and Egypt as Russia all but secure last-16 spot

Updated 19 June 2018
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Heartbreak for Mohamed Salah and Egypt as Russia all but secure last-16 spot

ST. PETERSBURG: Russia scored three goals in a 15-minute span early in the second half to set up a 3-1 win over Egypt on Tuesday, moving the host nation to the brink of the World Cup’s knockout stage.
Mohamed Salah won and converted a penalty for a consolation goal on his return from injury but Egypt’s first World Cup in 28 years could be over in barely five days following a second straight loss.
Ahmed Fathi poked the ball into his own net — the fifth own-goal of the tournament — to put Russia ahead in the 47th minute. Then Denis Cheryshev and Artyom Dzyuba scored in quick succession to leave Russia on course for a victory that followed up a 5-0 opening-night win over Saudi Arabia.
It was Cheryshev’s third goal of the World Cup, putting him tied with Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of the scoring chart.
Russia’s place in the round of 16 will be assured if Uruguay wins or draws against the Saudis on Wednesday. Those two scenarios would also eliminate Egypt, which started with a 1-0 loss to Uruguay.
The hopes of 100 million Egyptians were raised when Salah was selected in the starting lineup, the Liverpool forward making his comeback after 3 1/2 weeks out with damaged ligaments in his left shoulder after a tangle with Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final.
Salah trotted out for his pre-match warmup to roars from Egypt fans, who at times appeared to outnumber their Russian counterparts. They shouted every time Salah’s face flashed up on the big screen and when his name was announced before kickoff.
Yet from the start, it was clear that Salah was staying out of anything too physical and there was no concerted effort from his Egypt teammates to pick him out each time. He didn’t touch the ball until the seventh minute.
He did win the penalty — confirmed by the video assistant referee after Salah was pulled down by Roman Zobnin. He converted it in the 73rd minute, but it wasn’t enough. Egypt is still without a victory in six World Cup matches.
Russia is nearly assured of advancing from the group stage for the first time since the Soviet era.
Cheryshev, who entered the World Cup as a fringe player, is proving lethal in front of goal, with his latest a side-footed effort from close range from Mario Fernandes’ cross in the 59th. Dzyuba’s goal was more direct, the striker chesting down a long ball from defender Ilya Kutepov, beating his marker and curling home a low finish.