World Cup semi-finals What is the secret of the success of the African team?
Morocco made history by becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, and there are plenty of reasons why the Atlas Lions should not be underestimated, writes Times News writer Nick Wright.
Morocco beat Portugal 1-0 and will play in the semi-finals against France on 14 December, finishing first in a group that also featured Belgium, Croatia and Canada, beating Spain on penalties in the round of 16.
Walid Regraga’s team is coming into yet another match as the underdog – this time against the reigning world champions – but their performance in Qatar underscores the danger they pose.
“Don’t take them lightly,” Graeme Souness told ITV after Morocco’s victory over Portugal. There are many reasons why it would be a huge mistake to write off the national team.
Success based on defensive prowess Morocco’s
qualification to the quarter-finals was built on solid foundations. It is noteworthy that so far the team has conceded only once in five matches. Yes, and that one – after Nayef Agerd’s own goal.
Not a single opposing player managed to break through the goalkeeper of the Africans, Yasin Bunu, known simply as Bono. Spain failed to hit his net even in the penalty shoot-out, smearing all three penalties after a goalless draw, with two of them parried by the goalkeeper.
This is all the more impressive considering how long this team has gone without the ball. Morocco currently averages just 31.6 percent of possession – the second-lowest average of all 32 teams in the tournament – and yet the team rarely even lets their own goal in jeopardy.
Walid Regragui has only been in charge of the team for three months, but somehow it is eminently well organized, adept at keeping its opponents at arm’s length thanks in large part to its outstanding defensive structure.
The Atlas Lions’ challenge is likely to get tougher in the semi-finals, with Romain Saiss looking to join in the infirmary with centre-back Agerd, who was injured in the second half of the win against Portugal. But Morocco didn’t look any weaker with Jawad El-Yamik in the starting line-up, or when Ashraf Dari, purportedly the team’s fifth pick in that position, was scheduled to replace Saiss.
Kylian Mbappe may be looking forward to his chances to score against this experimental pair, assuming Agerd and Saiss won’t recover in time, but they’re backed up front by the formidable Sofiane Amrabat who has emerged as an outstanding player in midfield, and they also have a world-class right-back in Ashraf Hakimi.
At left-back, Bayern’s first choice, Nussair Mazraoui, was absent against Portugal, meaning Yahya Attiat-Allah would have to play. Again, though, it didn’t make much of a difference. The skill of playing in the defense of Morocco depends on the whole team, and not on the individual player.
Bold and brilliant in possession
It would be a mistake to look at Morocco’s possession figures and assume that the team is weak in this regard. On the contrary, she is technically excellent and bold in the way she handles the ball. The team showed this throughout the tournament.
This was evident in the way in the round of 16 they allowed Spain to press them high, playing the ball from defense with a daring usually associated with Spain itself. This also worked.
The Moroccan national team cut through the opponent’s lines several times after Bono decided to pass short. Then, once the pressure from Luis Enrique’s men had been overcome, they rushed forward at speed, making the most of any numerical advantage they had by pulling their opponents on. The Moroccan team didn’t score against Spain despite a well-deserved move to do so, but the Atlas Lions lured Portugal into the same trap.
In fact, the ball was scored under similar circumstances just seven minutes later, when Youssef En-Nesiri headed Attiat-Allah’s cross from the left after a series of passes lasting more than a minute, in which more than half of the Moroccan national team participated.
Even if the Atlas Lions scored only three goals in five matches at the World Cup in Qatar, not counting the penalty shootout, but this number is rather deceptive. They have shown that they can create problems for the best teams, and do it in style.
Amrabat, Unai, Bufal – players to watch The strength of Morocco lies in the team, but the team also stands out for its individual talents. Fiorentina midfielder Amrabat excels in the support zone, stopping attacks and then counter-attacking, and was particularly impressive in the win against Spain.
His performances have not gone unnoticed, with recent media reports suggesting that Liverpool are among the clubs eyeing the 26-year-old midfielder for a possible signing in January.
Luis Enrique thought exactly that. “Oh my God, where did this guy come from?” the now ex-Spain coach said after Unai helped eliminate Roja Furia from the 2022 World Cup. “He’s really good,” he added.
The 22-year-old midfielder was superb, showing his work ethic as well as his technical qualities, while running a total of 14.7 km before coming off the bench in the 119th minute, more than any player from either team. He was just as impressive against Portugal, with the Moroccan team creating most of their best attacking moments through him, as they did against Spain. The midfielder was little known before the World Cup, but now he is gone.
Unai plays for Angers in the French Ligue 1, as does Moroccan winger Sofiane Boufal. Like Hakim Ziyech on the opposite flank, he proved to be another outstanding international during the tournament.
The ex-Southampton player’s ability to play one-on-one proved invaluable, at times helping to ease the pressure on Regraga’s team, and also allowing the team to dangerously counterattack against other people’s goals. Spaniard Marcos Llorente had a particularly difficult time dealing with Bufal, but the same goes for all his rivals in Qatar.
Spaniard Marcos Llorente had a particularly difficult time dealing with Bufal, but the same goes for all his rivals in Qatar.
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