Morocco in fine shape ahead of their first finals since 1998

Morocco had plenty to celebrate in qualification. (AP)
Updated 29 November 2017

Morocco in fine shape ahead of their first finals since 1998

DUBAI: Exceptional team spirit has been at the heart of all Herve Renard’s successes as a coach. He masterminded one of football’s greatest underdog stories by lifting the African Nations Cup with Zambia and three years later ended Ivory Coast’s perennial underachievement by winning the trophy again.
Now it is Morocco reaping the fruits of Renard’s famed motivation after he guided the Atlas Lions to their first World Cup since 1998.
Ivorian Salamon Kalou recently compared his former coach to Jose Mourinho and it’s easy to see why. The relationships Renard forges with his players seem unbreakable; they lay everything on the line for their leader.
It is attitude rather than ability that has been key to Morocco’s return to football’s top table.
Renard has brought together a group of talented individuals — notably recruiting from the Moroccan diaspora in France, Holland and Spain — and created a collective to be reckoned with. There is no question this is the strongest national team assembled in a generation.
At the 1998 World Cup, Mustapha Hadji, Youssef Chippo and Noureddine Naybet were among the familiar faces to turn out for the Atlas Lions but that team fell short, coming third in their group behind Norway and eventual runners-up Brazil. Then, as now, they had a Frenchman — Henri Michel — at the helm and then, as now, they went into the tournament on the back of club success in the CAF Champions. In 1997 it was Raja Casablanca who were kings of the continent; in 2017, Wydad Casablanca flew the Moroccan flag with aplomb.
After Wydad’s success, coupled with a prodigious national team squad and a qualification campaign in which the previously imperious Ivory Coast were vanquished, expectations have risen dramatically.
It did not look so rosy 12 months ago. With two 0-0 draws from the opening two games, there were already murmurings of discontent. Had Renard’s magic touch worn off? Given Morocco had seen 11 coaches leave in 11 years leading up to the Frenchman’s appointment, speculation about his future was unsurprisingly rife. But the notoriously trigger-happy Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) demonstrated some rare restraint. Now, they are being rewarded for that show of faith. When he leads Morocco at next year’s World Cup, Renard will be the longest-serving Atlas Lions coach since Ezzaki Badou’s first reign ended in 2005.
Renard and Morocco recovered from those opening two draws, the 6-0 thrashing of Mali in the third match a pivotal moment. Everything finally came together as defensive stability and irresistible attacking play were in perfect union.
The six goals were shared between players born in Holland, Spain and France but the fans didn’t care. Their birthplace didn’t matter because they were giving their all for Morocco.
A surprising stalemate followed in the return match in Mali but a 3-0 defeat of Gabon — in which Khalid Boutaïb’s hat-trick underlined his importance — set up a grandstand finish in Abidjan. Renard’s charges showed remarkable temperament in that decisive game, the 2-0 victory over Ivory Coast providing a perfect exclamation point on the campaign.
The mental toughness of this group should leave Renard and Morocco feeling hopeful for the World Cup. No-one is expecting the Frenchman to achieve another miracle but advancing from the group stage should be the minimum target for Morocco’s ambitious coach and his players.

Vardy hits double in Leicester’s 8th straight victory

Updated 09 December 2019

Vardy hits double in Leicester’s 8th straight victory

  • Leicester takes the second-place team within eight points of Liverpool

BIRMINGHAM: Jamie Vardy scored for an eighth straight game for Premier League high-flyer Leicester on Sunday with a double in a 4-1 dismantling of Aston Villa.

Kelechi Iheanacho and Jonny Evans also scored to help Leicester set a new club record of eight consecutive top-flight wins and take the second-place team within eight points of Liverpool.

Jack Grealish did make it 2-1 just before the break but the Foxes were rarely in danger.

Brendan Rodgers’ side are 14 points clear of fifth-placed Manchester United in the pursuit of Champions League qualification.

“We are up there, we are challenging and playing well,” Evans told broadcaster Sky Sports. “Probably now, today, I think people are starting to talk more about that.

“Coming away from Villa with a really good performance, I think that’s the best Villa team we have played against for quite a while and we had to grind it out and it shows we are capable of getting good results.”

By contrast, Villa is only out of the relegation zone on goal difference after slipping to a fifth defeat in seven games.

Villa was wide open and Leicester should have taken the lead after 10 minutes.

Caglar Soyuncu knocked James Maddison’s deep free-kick back for Evans, who could only shoot straight at goalkeeper Tom Heaton.

Immediately, Villa broke to spurn their own golden chance when Matt Targett crossed for Anwar El Ghazi to hit the bar from six yards. With the chance went Villa’s early hopes and they swiftly lost any grip of the game when Vardy continued his scoring streak in the 20th minute.

Wesley lost the ball and the lively Iheanacho slipped the striker in to race clear and round Heaton. Vardy miscued his kick when preparing to shoot but recovered to tap in, despite Konsa’s efforts on the line.

Vardy is now just three games away from equalling his own Premier League record of scoring in 11 consecutive games.

Villa’s problems were partly of their own making with center back Tyrone Mings unable to cover having already suffered a hamstring injury and the defender was immediately replaced by Bjorn Engels.

Villa could not handle Vardy’s pace and Iheanacho’s movement.

There was a touch of fortune but Leicester deserved to double its lead in the 41st when Maddison crossed and Iheanacho diverted in at the near post.

The Foxes were cruising but Grealish pulled a goal back in first-half injury time when he curled in from 16 yards after the visitors failed to clear a corner.

Leicester, though, wasted no time in restoring their two-goal lead four minutes after the break.