Who are the key players behind Morocco's historic World Cup run?

By Sports Desk December 13, 2022 619

Morocco's celebrations said it all. Having done what many deemed the impossible against Spain, the Atlas Lions went one better by beating Portugal 1-0 in 90 minutes.

They only qualified for the World Cup semi-finals, so to some their jubilation might have even looked over the top.

But the significance of the win was not lost on Morocco's players.

Family members were on the pitch at full-time: goalkeeper Yassine Bounou brought his young son out to have a kickabout on the grass while the toddler adorably ran around wearing his dad's comically large gloves; Sofiane Boufal shared a heart-warming embrace with his mum, who subsequently joined him out on the turf; captain Romain Saiss held his son aloft; coach Walid Regragui was engulfed by a group of relatives in the stands.

These genuinely were comparable to celebrations that would be seen after winning the World Cup, and why not? After all, this is the closest any African team has ever come to lifting the famous trophy, with Wednesday's clash against France the first World Cup semi-final to include a CAF country.

While few would have picked them out as semi-finalists before the tournament, this run has been defined by tirelessness, spirit, and quality, with some perhaps surprised by how much of the latter they possess.

But who have been their standout performers to this point?

Bono's beautiful day

Any team that goes deep into a World Cup needs a dependable goalkeeper; when you look at the first-choice numbers ones in the semi-finals – Emiliano Martinez, Dominik Livakovic, Hugo Lloris and Yassine Bounou – the evidence is all there to see.

Bounou, or 'Bono' as he wears on his shirt, was named player of the match against Portugal. While he only made three saves, two of those were crucial stops near the end, and he was also just a generally assuring presence, swatting away high deliveries effectively.

The Sevilla goalkeeper, who was born in Canada, made his 50th appearance for Morocco on Saturday and became the first keeper to record three clean sheets at a single World Cup for an African team.

But he was also vital to Morocco's progression to the last eight, saving two spot-kicks in the penalty shoot-out that saw them past Spain.

If the Atlas Lions get past France, he'll have surely played a key role again.

Hakimi living up to his reputation

If there's one player in the Morocco squad who needs no introduction...

Paris Saint-Germain right-back Achraf Hakimi has been exceptional for Regragui's men. Some might have expected more from him in attack, but defensively he's really shown his class and work ethic.

 

No defender left in the tournament has contested (62) or won (35) more duels than Hakimi, while he also tops the charts for tackles (19) and tackles won (13).

Morocco haven't been scored against by an opposition player at the 2022 World Cup, with their only goal conceded coming via an own goal against Canada. They've kept four clean sheets, with the last two sides to record five in a single edition going on to lift the trophy (Spain 2010, Italy 2006).

Hakimi's certainly played his part.

Amrabat and Ounahi: the engine room

Sofyan Amrabat was by no means an unknown quantity coming into the tournament given he's had a bright start to the season with Fiorentina.

Azzedine Ounahi will have been much less familiar to many, but he'll leave Qatar with his reputation massively enhanced.

The 22-year-old Angers midfielder is a very satisfying player to watch. Elegant on the ball and a competitor without it, Ounahi has really stood out as a midfield all-rounder.

No other central midfielder can better his four carries leading to a key pass, while he has completed seven of 10 dribble attempts.

 

This elegance is matched by his guile, with just five midfielders winning more duels than Ounahi (26). With him alongside Amrabat, Morocco possess a legitimately excellent central pairing.

Amrabat can match Ounahi's combativeness, with his eight tackles won the fourth-highest among midfielders, but he also has a fine understanding of how to read the game, as demonstrated by his tournament-leading 41 recoveries.

 

The X-factor

There's rarely a dull moment when Boufal or Hakim Ziyech have the ball.

Of course, Ziyech came into the tournament with something of a point to prove after falling out with the previous coach.

He undoubtedly brings the capability to do something special out of nothing, though he also works extremely hard, with his 61 duels contested the joint-best among all midfielders in the tournament.

 

While that may not be what Ziyech is best known for, Hakimi will undoubtedly be happy for the help against Kylian Mbappe next time out.

Boufal on the other flank has been similarly tireless. Classed as a forward by Opta, only two other forwards have been in more duels (63) than the mercurial winger.

Additionally, his 22 take-on attempts has been bettered by only six players in the whole tournament, and his 54 per cent take-on success is the third best among players to attempt at least 12.

There's never been any doubt about Boufal's natural ability; he has just tended to frustrate. In Qatar, his talent on the ball has been key in helping Morocco turn defence into attack.

 

En-Nesyri out to silence the doubters

It's been a difficult 18 months or so for Youssef En-Nesyri, who is a team-mate of Bounou's at club level with Sevilla.

Injuries have disrupted his progress, and he's struggled to recapture his best form after a promising first full season at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

Nevertheless, he's got two goals now at this World Cup – that's two more than he has in LaLiga this term – and the second of those highlighted the striker's biggest strength: his aerial ability.

While that goal against Portugal went down as a Diogo Costa error, En-Nesyri's leap was remarkable. Counting it as a goalkeeping mistake arguably does the forward a disservice.

 

Regardless, he capitalised to become Morocco's all-time leading scorer at the World Cup, with his two in Qatar adding to the one he netted against Spain in 2018.

Whatever happens on Wednesday, Morocco will have two more matches, with a final or a third-place game to come. One more goal for En-Nesyri and he becomes just the fourth African player to score three or more at one tournament after Roger Milla in 1990 (four), Papa Bouba Diop in 2002 (three) and Asamoah Gyan in 2010 (three).

Judging by Morocco's giant-slaying narrative so far, however, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if one of their two remaining games is for the title.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13 December 2022 09:50
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