On Saturday, Achraf Hakimi became the latest victim of the injury misery that’s hitting the Atlas Lions.
Despite emerging as a right-back, stepping into the team when Dani Carvajal was injured, Hakimi starred on the left side of Morocco’s defence in Russia.
He showcased his improving defensive poise as the Lions fell at the first hurdle, while the starlet demonstrated fearlessness in possession as he tore forward to offer options down the left.
Critically, Hakimi’s versatility strengthened Morocco’s defence as he represented an upgrade on erstwhile left-back Hamza Mendyl, whose quality in advanced areas isn’t always matched by composure in defence.
With Hakimi on one side, and either Noussar Mazraoui or Nabil Dirar on the other, flanking two of Medhi Benatia, Romain Saiss and Manuel da Costa, Morocco have one of the best defensive units in the continent.
That’s without even considering Renard’s meticulous defensive organisation, the screening of Karim El Ahmadi, or the goalkeeping qualities of Spain-based duo Yassine Bounou and Munir Mohand.
Still only 20, Hakimi is already Morocco’s first UCL winner, and could yet clinch a Bundesliga title this term.
However, he’ll play no further part in this season, after breaking a metatarsal in Dortmund’s 2-0 victory over Wolfsburg on Saturday.
Hakimi had been introduced as a 49th-minute substitute for Abdou Diallo, another key BVB defender who now faces a spell on the sidelines, but was himself replaced by Jacob Bruun Larsen 16 minutes from time.
Dortmund, who had laboured for the entirety of the bout, ultimately secured a 2-0 victory after a double from Paco Alcacer in stoppage time, but the win came at a cost.
They confirmed on Monday that the full-back will be out for the rest of the season and had been sent back to Madrid for surgery, placing his Nations Cup campaign in doubt.
"I felt my foot give way, then I tried to continue, but I wasn’t able to do so, and I threw myself on the ground," he told Cadena Cope on Tuesday.
"Thinking about the return scares me more than the operation, I am also a little sad,” he added.
"On Wednesday, I will undergo surgery in Madrid, and the recovery will be, in principle, between Madrid and Dortmund,"
It’s a significant setback for Morocco, but also for Lucien Favre’s Dortmund.
The margins in the Bundesliga are increasingly tight, and while Bayern Munich were held at Freiburg on Saturday—allowing BVB to restore a two-point advantage—they’ll still be confident they can wrest back top spot over the outstanding seven matches.
Hakimi’s misfortune opens the door to Mendyl, who only has nine league games for Schalke 04 under his belt this term, although Renard may also consider Achraf Lazaar of Sheffield Wednesday or Hassania Agadir’s Abdelkrim Baadi.
Raja Casablanca left-back Abdeljalil Jbira may also be an option if he can recover from his recent injury setback.
However, full-back isn’t the only position where Renard may now have a decision to make.
While the Frenchman quickly built the framework for his Morocco side after taking the job in February 2016, he’s struggled to find a striker to cap-off his starting XI.
The likes of Khalid Boutaib, Rachid Alioui, Ayoub El Kaabi, Aziz Bouhaddouz, Yacine Bammou, Achraf Bencharki and even Walid Azaro have all been assessed by the French coach, with none truly convincing.
However, Youssef En-Nesyri has emerged as a viable candidate.
The youngster was handed just 18 minutes at the World Cup, but scored against Spain in Morocco’s final group game to put the Lions 2-1 up with nine minutes to go.
He already has eight league goals this season, including six in a three-game spell in late January and early February, with a hat-trick-showing against Real Betis arguably the finest performance of his career.
The 21-year-old also struck twice against Malawi in September as Morocco moved closer to the Nations Cup.
Yet, he’s currently out of action too after picking up an injury during the recent international break.
Fortunately, the prognosis appears more favourable than initially anticipated, with the attacker expected to be absent for a maximum of four weeks, rather than the longer period that had originally been expected.
Some relief for Renard, perhaps, but it remains to be seen whether En-Nesyri will rediscover the form he demonstrated earlier in the campaign when he returns to action.
Finally, Abdelilah Hafidi may not be a regular in the Morocco side like Hakimi or En-Nesyri, but he had the potential to be a trump card for the Lions in Egypt later this summer.
The attacking midfielder is one of the most exquisite playmakers still plying his trade in Africa, where he dazzles fans week in, week out with Moroccan giants Raja Casablanca.
Hafidi played a key role in last year’s Confederation Cup success, getting the best out of the likes of Mahmoud Benhalib and Mouhcine Iajour.
السيد فوزي لقجع يتابع الحالة الصحية للاعبين النصيري والحافيظي وحاكيمي يتابع السيد فوزي لقجع، رئيس الجامعة الملكية المغربية لكرة القدم، الحالة الصحية لكل من يوسف النصيري الذي أصيب خلال المعسكر الأخير للمنتخب الوطني الأول، وعبد الإله الحافيظي، لاعب فريق الرجاء الرياضي، وأشرف حاكيمي، لاعب فريق بروسيا دورتموند الألماني، إثر اصابتهما رفقة فريقيهما. وكلف رئيس الجامعة الملكية المغربية لكرة القدم، السيد عبد الرزاق هيفتي، طبيب المنتخب الوطني للمتابعة الدقيقة للحالة الصحية للاعبين الثلاثة. @achrafhakimi @hafidiabdel18
He scored the decisive goal in the final victory in AS Vita Club, and also opened the scoring for Raja in their recent Caf Super Cup victory over Esperance de Tunis.
Injury overshadowed his African Nations Championship campaign with Morocco in early 2018, but he’s nonetheless muscled his way into Renard’s plans, and was handed a start for the Lions’ final Afcon qualifier—the 0-0 draw with Malawi.
Now, however, this underrated talent has been sidelined too, after picking up an injury during the Super Cup final.
Hafidi appears to be the least likely of the three to return in time for the Nations Cup.
He may not be a key figure in Renard’s plans yet, but his absence denies the North Africans the services of a magician who can unlock defences, and a maestro who can bring supporters to their feet.
The tournament will be weaker for his absence.