Our Group B team analysis gets underway with Morocco, who have qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years.
Herve Renard’s side begin their campaign at 4pm on Friday 15 June with what is surely a must-win match against Iran in Saint Petersburg.
Morocco then face Portugal five days later in a 1pm kick-off in Moscow, before a 7pm showdown with Spain on Monday 25 June in Kaliningrad.
Road to Qualification
Morocco’s World Cup qualification was a triumph against the odds.
Entering at the second-round stage of CAF qualifying, they were at the time ranked 84th in the world – only the 22nd highest-seeded African team competing at that point. Indeed, their opponents in the second round, Equatorial Guinea, were some 21 places higher in the July 2015 FIFA World Rankings.
A 2-0 win in Agadir preceded a nervy 1-0 defeat in Equatorial Guinea, with Morocco – then under the stewardship of Ezzaki Badou – progressing by the narrowest of aggregate margins.
Renard then took charge of Morocco for the third and final CAF qualification round, leading his new team through an undefeated six-match group campaign. Having drawn three of their first four fixtures 0-0, Morocco then leapfrogged Ivory Coast in their penultimate match with a win over Gabon, before consolidating top spot with a 2-0 success over Les Elephants in Abidjan.
The stand-out feature of Morocco’s World Cup qualification was their impregnable defence, who kept six straight clean sheets. Six of Morocco’s 11 third round goals came in their routing of Mali in Rabat.
Most starts: Munir Mohamedi (8), Medhi Benatia (7), Romain Saiss, Mbark Boussoufa, Nordin Amrabat (6), Karim El Ahmadi, Younes Belhanda, Hakim Ziyech (5), Achraf Hakimi, Khalid Boutaib, Nabil Dirar (4)
Most goals: Khalid Boutaib (4), Hakim Ziyech (2)
Most assists: Mbark Boussoufa, Noureddine Amrabat (3), Hakim Ziyech (2)
Morocco have won all three of their friendlies since last August, defeating South Korea (3-1), Serbia (2-1) and Uzbekistan (2-0).
The Key Targets
In a group containing the European Championship holders and the 2010 World Cup winners, Morocco will have their undoubted defensive strength severely tested.
Munir Mohamedi (priced at £5.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) is a certain starter between the sticks and was the only Morocco player to feature in all eight of their qualifying matches.
Romain Saiss (£5.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA), who largely operates in midfield for newly promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers, is a likely starter alongside captain Medhi Benatia (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) in the centre of defence.
Benatia grabbed the second goal in Morocco’s all-important win against Ivory Coast in qualifying and is his country’s most expensive defensive asset on Fantasy iTeam. In the five qualifying matches in which he and Saiss were partnered at the back, Morocco didn’t concede a single goal.
With two goals and as many assists in five qualifying fixtures, Hakim Ziyech (£6.7m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is the standout – and indeed most expensive – option in midfield. A free-kick specialist who can play across the middle, Ziyech scored on nine occasions and supplied 15 assists in 34 Eredivisie appearances for Ajax this season.
Ziyech is likely to be Morocco’s first-choice penalty taker, too, having scored from the spot in his country’s 2-1 friendly win over Serbia in March. Ziyech also provided another assist in that match. He has eight goals in 15 appearances for the national team.
Mbark Boussoufa (£5.4m on Fantasy iTeam | £6.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) and Watford’s Nordin Amrabat (£5.9m on Fantasy iTeam | £6.0 on McDonald’s FIFA) are less of a goal threat, but with three assists apiece during qualification, represent budget midfield options with points potential. Boussoufa takes his fair share of corner-kicks and was the creator of Benatia’s goal in the aforementioned victory over Ivory Coast.
Khalid Boutaib (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £6.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) could be an excellent budget pick in attack. One of the lowest-priced forwards in Fantasy iTeam, Boutaib is set to start the World Cup as Morocco’s only recognised on-field striker in a 4-1-4-1 or, in the crucial opening match against Iran, perhaps as the spearhead of a more attacking 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.
Boutaib scored four goals in as many starts in qualification, including a hat-trick in the 3-0 win over Gabon. A relative latecomer to international football, Boutaib made his Morocco debut at the age of 29 and has seven goals in his 15 appearances for the national side.
The Long Shots
The leading goalscorer in the Moroccan squad is not, in fact, Boutaib, but Ayoub El Kaabi (£5.4m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA).
The 24-year-old forward has ten goals in just eight international appearances and was top scorer in the 2018 African Nations Championship, a tournament in which only domestic league players may compete. El Kaabi is one of only three players who featured in that cup-winning squad to receive a call-up for Russia.
While Boutaib is likely to get the nod up front in Morocco’s opening match, El Kaabi is one to monitor as the group stage progresses. El Kaabi was on target in Morocco’s most recent friendly in March, a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan in which many fringe players featured.
One of the most exciting prospects in this Moroccan squad is Real Madrid full-back Achraf Hakimi (£5.7m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.5 on McDonald’s FIFA). The 19-year-old defender has largely been used as Dani Carvajal’s understudy by Zinedine Zidane this season but demonstrated his attacking instincts with two goals in nine La Liga appearances at right-back.
Though he didn’t feature in Morocco’s international friendly double-header in March due to injury, Hakimi is expected to be a first-choice pick in defence. Cristiano Ronaldo’s proclivity for drifting to the flanks means that Hakimi could be directly up against his Real Madrid team-mate in Morocco’s second group game against Portugal.
Areas to Avoid
On the face of it, Morocco appear to be a very well-balanced side. A defensively sound team who conceded only one goal in eight qualifying matches, they possess several players who are plying their trade in the highest reaches of European football.
What counts against them, of course, is their group opponents.
Only Belgium and Germany (both 43) scored more goals than Spain (36) and Portugal (32) in the UEFA qualification section, while no European country conceded fewer goals than Spain (three) in their ten group games.
Portugal were also watertight at the back (conceding four), while Iran (two goals conceded in ten games) had by far the best defence in the third round of AFC qualification.
Fantasy managers would, perhaps, be prudent to target Morocco players in their opening group match with Iran, before jettisoning their assets ahead of games against Portugal and Spain.
Despite being assured of a starting spot, goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi has never featured in a top-flight fixture at club level and will find himself severely tested against the likes of Ronaldo and Diego Costa.
Defensive midfielder Karim El Ahmadi (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA), who has one goal in 44 appearances for Morocco, is arguably one to swerve from a Fantasy perspective. The former Aston Villa man is likely to be stationed just in front of the back four and, at 33 years of age, his ageing limbs are a concern, particularly for the matches against Spain and Portugal in which his side will have to do the bulk of the chasing.
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