Morocco are back at the World Cup for the first time since France '98 and will make their fifth World Cup appearance in total this summer. They are not expected to progress beyond the group stage, however, with Spain and Portugal also drawn in Group B with them.
Medhi Benatia (Juventus)
With a defence led by captain Medhi Benatia, Morocco topped Group C of the African qualifying section third round after keeping clean sheets in all six of their third-round matches – beating Ivory Coast and Gabon to a World Cup spot as a result.
The only goal Morocco conceded in qualifying came in the second round, when they lost their away leg 1-0 to Equatorial Guinea but qualified 2-1 on aggregate, while three of their third-round matches ended in goalless draws.
While their defensive record took centre-stage, however, Khalid Boutaib also impressed up front – his hat-trick at home to Gabon took him to four goals in total in qualifying, with only Egypt’s Mo Salah scoring more. Benatia was on the scoresheet in the final game against Ivory Coast, meanwhile, when a 2-0 away win secured Morocco’s place in Russia – only a second ever international goal for the Morocco captain.
Morocco will be at the World Cup finals for just the fifth time, having last qualified 20 years ago for France ’98. They signed off from that tournament by beating Scotland 3-0 – just their second-ever World Cup finals win – but still departed in the group stage despite claiming four points.
They have only once advanced from the group stage, losing in the second round in 1986.
Caen’s 21-year-old midfielder Youssef Ait Bennasser has overcome injury to make Morocco’s final 23-man squad for the World Cup. He was a big doubt after missing Morocco’s friendlies in March before suffering another injury setback that kept him out of action until the start of May. Real Madrid teenager Achraf Hakimi is also fit again after missing those March friendlies, but Zouhair Feddal misses out with a ruptured Achilles. Three domestic-based players are included, including Ayoub El Kaabi, the RS Berkane striker who played his way into contention with nine goals in the African Nations Championship for domestic-based players. His inclusion means Malaga striker Youssef En-Nesyri misses out, while an appeal by Alaves’ Barcelona loanee Munir El Haddadi – who made a single competitive appearance for Spain – to switch nationalities was rejected.
Morocco’s success in qualifying was based on their defence, where Juventus man Medhi Benatia leads the side. He boasts more than 50 Morocco caps, while his league titles and Champions League experience with first Bayern Munich and now Juventus makes him one of Morocco’s most successful exports.
Further forward, Ajax winger Hakim Ziyech scored one and set one up in the defeat of Serbia in March, to take him to eight goals from his first 15 caps. He has enjoyed another decent season domestically too, featuring heavily in Ajax’s successful bid for Champions League qualification.
Whether you include the African Nations Championship for domestic-based players or not, Morocco are in superb form. Their ‘full’ squad have won friendlies against South Korea, Serbia and Uzbekistan alongside sealing qualification for the World Cup without conceding a goal. In March’s back-to-back friendlies, they beat Serbia 2-1 in Turin, before a 2-0 home win against Uzbekistan. Their winning streak was ended by a goalless draw with Ukraine in Geneva but they got back to winning ways thanks to Younes Belhanda’s winner in a 2-1 defeat of Slovakia, before a 3-1 win in Estonia – Belhanda, Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri scoring.
1 – Yassine Bounou (Girona) – Age 27 – 11 caps/0 goals
12 – Munir Mohamedi (Numancia) – Age 29 – 27 caps/0 goals
22 – Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti (IR Tanger) – Age 22 – 2 caps/0 goals
2 – Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid) – Age 19 – 10 caps/1 goal
3 – Hamza Mendyl (Lille) – Age 20 – 13 caps/0 goals
4 – Manuel da Costa (Istanbul Basaksehir) – Age 32 – 28 caps/1 goal
5 – Medhi Benatia (Juventus) – Age 31 – 57 caps/2 goals
6 – Romain Saiss (Wolves) – Age 28 – 24 caps/1 goal
17 – Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce) – Age 32 – 34 caps/3 goals
7 – Hakim Ziyech (Ajax) – Age 25 – 18 caps/9 goals
8 – Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord) – Age 33 – 51 caps/1 goal
10 – Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray) – Age 28 – 47 caps/5 goals
11 – Faycal Fajr (Getafe) – Age 29 – 23 caps/2 goals
14 – Mbark Boussoufa (Al-Jazira) – Age 33 – 59 caps/7 goals
15 – Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen) – Age 21 – 14 caps/0 goals
16 – Nordin Amrabat (Leganes) – Age 31 – 44 caps/4 goals
18 – Amine Harit (Schalke 04) – Age 20 – 6 caps/0 goals
19 – Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez (Standard Liege) – Age 28 – 20 caps/1 goal
21 – Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord) – Age 21 – 6 caps/0 goals
9 – Ayoub El Kaabi (RS Berkane) – Age 24 – 10 caps/11 goals
13 – Khalid Boutaib (Yeni Malatyaspor) – Age 31 – 18 caps/7 goals
20 – Aziz Bouhaddouz (St Pauli) – Age 31 – 15 caps/3 goals
23 – Youssef En-Nesyri (Malaga) – Age 21 – 16 caps/2 goals
Morocco impressed defensively in qualifying and in the build-up to the World Cup, but they will struggle in Group B having been drawn alongside Spain and Portugal.
Their first game will be an important one, therefore, as they face Iran in what will surely be the match for third place in the group.
Morocco’s form is excellent, and justifies them being 11/8 favourites to win that opening game with Bet365 but be cautious – Morocco’s excellent defence and solid attack is matched by their Asian opponents. While Morocco beat South Korea in a friendly, Iran beat them in World Cup qualification.
They are more evenly matched than it may seem, therefore, and odds of 5/4 on Morocco finishing bottom of the group may prove profitable.
Certainly, there is more value there than backing them not to qualify from the group. Such is Spain and Portgual’s expected dominance, Morocco are as low as 1/6 not to get out of the group.
Morocco were impressive in qualifying, especially defensively, and in Medhi Benatia boast a captain well used to the biggest stages, but realistically they will not be advancing from a group that also includes Portugal and Spain.
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Complete list of 32 teams participating in World Cup 2018 and their Group Predictions