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African All Stars

Morocco’s stars hitting top form at just the right time

02:46 EAT 21/02/2019
Hakim Ziyech Ajax Real Madrid
With the Africa Cup of Nations approaching, the Atlas Lions’ biggest names are making ripples in some of the world’s biggest leagues
There are many reasons why Morocco ought to be considered favourites for the Africa Cup of Nations 2019.

They were arguably the continent’s best performers at the World Cup in Russia last year, even if they fell at the first hurdle, and were unfortunate not to beat Spain in their final group game.

As well as a swathe of talented players across the team, they also boast Herve Renard.

No other manager has won the Africa Cup of Nations with two different national teams, and the Frenchman—a victor with Zambia in 2012 and the Ivory Coast in 2015—is a master of knockout football.

He’s integrated into Moroccan culture, and the country’s national psyche, and has managed to impose his philosophy onto a hungry and intelligent collection of players.

There have been bumps on the road since his arrival in February 2016—notably the arduous quest for an effective frontman and persistent tension with Medhi Benatia—but Morocco are in excellent shape as we approach the continental showpiece.

Even more encouragingly for the North Africans, as they look to win only their second African crown, some of their star men are enjoying the form of their careers across some of Europe’s major leagues.

The primary example is Hakim Ziyech, who reaffirmed his qualities—and served a reminder as to why Europe’s biggest clubs will be keeping tabs on him—with an excellent showing in Ajax’s 2-1 defeat by Real Madrid last week.

The playmaker netted the Dutch side’s consolation goal in that game, and added his ninth assist of the Eredivisie season in Ajax’s 5-0 mauling of NAC Breda at the weekend.

To date, he has 21 decisive contributions in 19 league games this term; he’s already scored more than he managed in the entirety of last term—having played 15 games fewer—and should comfortably ease past last year’s tally of 24 goals and assists combined.

Whether or not he leaves Ajax this summer, and whether or not he departs as a Dutch champion, there aren’t too many African players who will be in hotter form than Ziyech as we head into the Afcon.

However, another Moroccan, Younes Belhanda, might give him a run for his money.

Like Ziyech’s Ajax, Belhanda’s Galatasaray are just off the pace in their division, but the 28-year-old looks to be entering a rich vein of form as we approach the business end of the campaign.

While his form was patchy up until February, the playmaker has turned on the class after the winter break.

He has three goals and two assists in his last four Turkish top flight clashes, and if he can maintain this kind of form, then don’t be surprised if Gala close the eight-point gap to Istanbul Basaksehir.

While the talents of Ziyech and Belhanda are nothing new for Morocco, the creative duo haven’t truly been complemented by a high-quality forward during Renard’s tenure.

The limited Aziz Bouhaddouz, Ayoub El Kaabi and ageing Khalid Boutaib have all been trialled as the Lions’ figurehead, but none have truly convinced.

As Goal’s Solace Chukwu argued earlier this month, Youssef En-Nesyri finally appears ready to shoulder the Lions’ offensive weapon.

The 21-year-old’s form has continued to improve over the last few weeks.

He’d scored just two La Liga goals this term before mid-January, but then proceeded to score seven in his next fine games.

This may just be a purple patch, but En-Nesyri’s recent contributions have helped to drag Leganes six points clear of the relegation zone, and finally, he appears to be making the most of his myriad qualities.

Elsewhere in Spain, goalkeeper Yassine Bounou delivered one of his finest showings of the season last weekend as he produced a swathe of fine saves to deny Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.

The stopper was influential as Girona won 2-1, ending a run of four consecutive defeats.

They remain firmly in harm’s way—only four points off the dropzone—but the towering Bounou continues to be a source of optimism.

Perhaps the biggest Moroccan success story isn’t any of the aforementioned players, but actually Achraf Hakimi of Borussia Dortmund.

Unlike En-Nesyri and Bounou, the youngster opted to leave Spain in search of success in the summer, signing a two-year loan deal with Borussia Dortmund.

It’s proved to be a masterstroke for all parties, even if BVB have been frustrated in their desire to recruit Hakimi permanently.

There aren’t too many full-backs who have impressed more than the Moroccan this term, and he’s proved influential—on either flank—as Borussia Dortmund have mounted a sustained and convincing title challenge.

Just 20, Hakimi’s form this term suggests he’s well on course to be Africa’s top full-back—some would argue he’s there already. It will be fascinating to see how he fares against the continent’s top teams in Egypt.

Finally, one player to watch—both in Europe’s major leagues over the coming months, and as an emerging face for Morocco—might just be Youssef Ait Bennasser.

The defensive midfielder endured a miserable first half of the campaign with troubled AS Monaco, but a switch to Saint-Etienne already looks like a smart move.

Ait Bennasser demonstrated every aspect of his well-rounded game at the weekend, as ASSE were defeated 1-0 at home by league leaders Paris Saint-Germain.

Ultimately, the hosts fell short, but the North African was in imperious form.

No player on the park completed more dribbles or created more chances than the 22-year-old—that includes match-winner Kylian Mbappe.

He also completed two interceptions and three tackles in the heart of the park, where he’s already forming a magnificent partnership with Yann M’Vila.

Ait Bennasser’s ease in possession is a particular quality that Renard has identified and begun to exploit, he could prove to be yet another key asset, hitting top form at the right time, as Morocco seek to end their 43-year wait for a continental crown.