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Mbappe's BFF Hakimi cementing his status as the world's best right-back with lead Morocco role

8:15 pm AEDT 10/12/22
Achraf Hakimi Kylian Mbappe 2022 World Cup GFX
The Paris Saint-Germain defender has played a pivotal role in Morocco's magical run to the quarter-finals, where they will face Portugal on Saturday

It was undoubtedly the most important penalty in Moroccan football history. The tension was unbearable, at least for the nation's fans.

Achraf Hakimi was completely unperturbed. He calmly stepped up to take Morocco's fourth spot-kick in their last-16 shootout with Spain and pulled off a Panenka to secure his country a place in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.

Which was pretty staggering. And not just in the context of the game. We're talking about a player that Antonio Conte once claimed was even worse at taking penalties than him.

"I see him at the end of training when he stops to take penalties with the others," the former Inter coach explained to reporters, "and I think that if we were to arrive at the end of some tournament, everyone would have to die before Hakimi would be allowed to take a penalty!"

Conte, of course, loves Hakimi as a player. He always has. The Italian went out of his way to convince the Madrid-born Morocco defender to join him at Inter in 2020.

Conte knew full well that Hakimi would excel as a wing-back in his preferred 3-5-2 formation. And he was right. Hakimi ran riot during his one and only season in Serie A (to date!).

So, when Inter were forced to sell Hakimi to Paris Saint-Germain last year, Conte was disgusted. The transfer played a part in his decision to quit as coach. His title-winning side had been stripped of one of its key components and he knew more exits were likely.

PSG paid an initial €60 million for Hakim's services. A significant chunk of money for a defender but everyone knew it was a bargain. Indeed, how much is Hakimi worth now after his World Cup heroics?

It's not just about the penalty either, even though that's obviously drawn more attention to Hakimi than anything else. Not least because of Kylian Mbappe, who has been quick to pay tribute to his PSG team-mate and best friend at Parc des Princes.

Ahead of the quarter-finals, the France winger is the undisputed player of the tournament so far. But Hakimi has arguably been its best defender. He has been utterly integral to Morocco's shock run to the last eight, proving himself the most balanced right-back on show in Qatar.

It's long been known that he can attack. He's always garnered plenty of attention for his surges into opposition territory. Even the great Ronaldo once fantasised about playing alongside Hakimi.

"Sometimes I think: 'Ronnie, imagine you and him,'" the Brazil legendrevealed to Gazzetta dello Sport. "We would go at a decent speed!"

Given Hakimi's pace, it's hardly surprising that he's made more line breaks (60) or even played more passes (193) than any of his Morocco team-mates. However, his many defensive attributes are now being recognised too.

No player has made (17) or won more tackles (11) at the 2022 World Cup, while he also ranks fourth for duels won (30).

Morocco, of course, are hardly a one-man team. Their achievement is a true triumph of the collective. Just look at the way in which Hakim Ziyech is not only offering a creative spark out wide, but also running himself into the ground for his team-mates.

So much credit for that must go to Walid Regragui. He didn't just convince Ziyech to come out of international retirement. Despite only taking over in August, he's also managed to form one of the most formidable defensive units in world football. Morocco have conceded just once so far, and even that was an own goal.

They have shut out Croatia, Belgium and Spain, so even Portugal won't hold much fear for the Atlas Lions – whether Cristiano Ronaldo starts or not.

Indeed, what's stood out about Morocco's performances to date has been their impressive confidence and commitment to the cause. Hakimi arguably personifies that self-belief. But he's not the only one.

Some of their players could barely walk by the end of the Spain game. Sofyan Amrabat was up at 3am on the morning of that match, working with the team physio in a desperate bid to prove his fitness. He also took a pain-killing injection in order to play.

"I am very emotional," Amrabat admitted afterwards. "There was a big question over whether I could play this game, but I couldn't abandon the guys and my country."

The big question now, of course, is whether they nullify the threat posed by Portugal. The Selecao certainly possess far more variety and attacking options than Spain. This is a team that brought Rafael Leao and Ronaldo off the bench in their 6-1 last-16 rout of Switzerland.

In Goncalo Ramos, they also appear to have unearthed a new striking sensation, meaning Portugal, unlike Spain, will have a focal point as well as offensive fluidity, with Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix and Bernardo Silva once again set to regularly switch positions in and around their new, mobile centre-forward.

Hakimi will obviously be key again. Fatigue shouldn't be a factor for him at least. As former Arsenal right-back Bacary Sagna once told GOAL, "Hakimi is never tired. He's always going forward."

He may not get many chances to attack against Portugal, of course. He'll have to worry about the free-roaming Felix as well as Raphael Guerreiro's runs from deep.

However, as he's proven in Qatar, he's become a complete right-back. As he says himself, he became a far better defender thanks to Conte. And he can even take penalties now too.