Maturing Youssef En-Nesyri ready to shoulder Atlas Lions' burden

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The 21-year-old is showing the sort of form that could finally resolve Morocco's timidity in front of goal

COMMENT   By Solace Chukwu  

Going into this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations, there seems to be some consensus as to who the favourites are.

Egypt, beaten finalists two years ago, will no doubt be in the conversation, even if only for the fact that they are the host nation.

Senegal have an assortment of riches all over the pitch, as do Morocco, who handily also have the Afcon whisperer Herve Renard in their employ.

Nigeria, with speed on the counterattack and a useful winning habit (at least on the continent) completes this group of four, for whom any less than a place in the semi-finals will taste like failure.

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All four nations featured at the World Cup last summer, and while none managed to progress from the Group Stage, Morocco earned plaudits for their style of play: silky passing and switching of the play saw them dominate the exchanges in two of their three matches, only to suffer 1-0 defeats in both.

The irony of this will, no doubt, not have been lost on Renard, seeing as his legend was founded upon defying the odds and sucker-punching better teams with Zambia in 2012.

However, the shoe is now on the other foot; the major problem, as was starkly demonstrated in Russia, is that his side, for all its artistry and synchronicity of movement, has feet of clay.

Whereas with Zambia and Ivory Coast, there was a minimalism underpinned by efficiency and concentration in front of goal – who can forget his screams of 'Mayuka!' – with the Atlas Lions, it seems necessary to create a high volume of chances in order to make hay.

It is a failing that goes as far back as the 2017 Afcon, where Morocco were quite unfortunate to exit at the hands of Egypt in the quarter-final.

Herve Renard of Morocco

Then, it was the battering ram Aziz Bouhaddouz who, for all his endeavour, proved quite blunt in front of goal, missing a raft of chances to put the Pharaohs to the sword.

In Russia, neither Ayoub El Kaabi nor Khalid Boutaib were fit for purpose, although the latter did find the net belatedly in the final group game against Spain. It just seems like Morocco were missing one final piece.

This is why Youssef En-Nesyri’s recent form in La Liga is so important, and will be music to the ears of Renard. Two years ago, the then 19-year-old proved about as inexperienced as could be expected in his cameos, and while he scored at the World Cup with a thumping header, he clearly was not ready to be handed the reins of the team.

Well, he is now.

Youssef En-Nesyri of Morocco

Leganes are a modest side, built more to last than to engage, which makes their strikers’ jobs all the harder: En-Nesyri is the club’s joint top-scorer, with five.

If that seems underwhelming, consider that under Mauricio Pellegrino, they have scored only 22 goals all season; the Morocco international has scored close to 25 per cent of their total.

Interestingly, four of those five goals have come in Leganes’ last four matches.

En-Nesyri is bang in from, and there is a proper fear factor to the 21-year-old now.

Following his brace against Eibar, Jose Luis Mendilibar admitted that his first goal, a twinkle-toed run that saw him weave his way into the penalty area before drilling a low finish in at the near post, caused a panic in his team.

For his second, he rose highest in the box to head home; on Monday night, he headed in once again to steal a late victory after Leganes had been reduced to 10 men.

Against Huesca a fortnight ago, it was a neat volley to settle proceedings after stealing in at the near post. There is a variety of finishes, but a common thread runs through them: a penchant for important goals in critical moments.

It will be a useful knack for Morocco come the summer, especially if his form holds till the end of the season.

With a retinue of artists, led by the excellent Hakim Ziyech, there will be no shortage of supply.

In En-Nesyri, they may finally have the finisher to provide the final brushstroke.