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.


Saudi Arabia to face Japan in Asian Cup second round after defeat to Qatar

Updated 17 January 2019
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Saudi Arabia to face Japan in Asian Cup second round after defeat to Qatar

  • A double from Almoez Ali means Qatar top Group E.
  • Juan Antonio Pizzi's men now face Japan in second round on Monday.

LONDON: Saudi Arabia now know they will have to overcome Japan in the second round if they are to keep their hopes of a fourth Asian Cup title alive. 

A 2-0 defeat at the hands of Qatar meant Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men finished second in Group E — both sides went into the top-of-the-table clash knowing they had already secured a spot in the knockout stages. 

A brace from Almoez Ali in Abu Dhabi was enough to give Qatar the three points and leave them top of the group. 

From the kick-off the Green Falcons were the ones who looked the more likely to make the initial breakthrough —  Fahad Almuwallad slamming a right-foot shot against the post after 22 minutes.

Qatar captain Hasan Al-Haydos then missed a penalty in the 42nd minute after Ali had been clattered in the box.

But Ali, who scored four goals in Qatar's 6-0 rout of North Korea last weekend, made no mistake in first-half stoppage time.

He calmly slotted the ball past Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais to become the first player to score six goals in a single Asian Cup since South Korea's Lee Dong-gook in 2000.

Ali subsequently headed in a seventh goal of the tournament 10 minutes from time, celebrating with a jig of delight.

While the defeat was not ideal Green Falcons coach Pizzi said he was still hopeful Saudi Arabia would be able to go far in the tournament. 

"It was an intense game but we have to hide our feelings and prepare for the last 16," Pizzi said.

"We were missing quality in the final third and individual errors have cost us," he added.

"But we will bounce back. I respect every team left in the competition, including Japan, but I don't feel that we are inferior to them in any way."

Qatar, who have never gone beyond the quarterfinals, advance to face Iraq in the last 16.