Morocco counting on Boufal and Ziyech for goals at World Cup
Youssef En-Nesyri’s goal drought sharpens the focus on others to score for Morocco at the World Cup in Qatar.
En-Nesyri has not scored for Sevilla in the Spanish league, after netted 18 league goals two seasons ago.
En-Nesyri has considerable experience with 49 international appearances and 14 goals, including a header against Spain at the 2018 World Cup. His ability to stop opposing defenders from passing the ball out cleanly also makes him a valuable asset.
But he’s not scoring, whereas Sofiane Boufal is.
At 29 years old, Boufal is entering his peak years and four of his five international goals have come this year. He’s also netted three in 10 games for Angers in the French league this season.
He’s long been a talent, albeit inconsistent.
Five years ago, Boufal scored an astonishing goal for Southampton, running from deep inside his own half and dribbling past five players. He won the 2017-18 Premier League goal of the season award.
While Boufal is coming back to form, Hakim Ziyech is returning from an exile imposed by former Morocco coach Vahid Halilhodzic — who had dropped the Chelsea winger in a dispute over a supposed unwillingness to play in a friendly game.
“A player who refuses to train, who refuses to play, who feigns injury, for me the story is over,” Halilhodzic said on Croatian TV channel Nova TV in April. “The national team is sacred.”
Despite guiding the Atlas Lions to the tournament, Halilhodzic was fired in August. The Moroccan soccer federation said it was because of disagreements in preparing the team for the World Cup, where Morocco has a tough draw in Group F. The team will open against 2018 World Cup runner-up Croatia on Nov. 23 before facing 2018 semifinalist Belgium and then Canada.
Morocco replaced Halilhodzic with Walid Regragui, a 47-year-old Moroccan who made 45 international appearances as a right back. Last season, Regragui led Moroccan club Wydad Casablanca to the league and CAF Champions League titles.
Regragui immediately recalled Ziyech — who was so unhappy under the disciplinarian Halilhodzic that he even announced his international retirement — for a 2-0 victory over Chile and a 0-0 draw against Paraguay in warmups last month.
Against the Chileans, Regragui gave a glimpse of how his team could line up against Croatia by selecting Ziyech on the right and Boufal on the left, on either side of the spearpoint En-Nesyri.
It worked. Boufal scored, as did Abdelhamid Sabiri, a regular scorer in Italy with Sampdoria who got his first international goal.
Once nicknamed “The Wizard” by Ajax fans, Ziyech has a point to prove, too, after flopping at the last World Cup in Russia. He kicked the air when missing an easy early chance in a 1-0 loss to Iran in their tournament opener.
Ziyech and Boufal should get plenty of scoring chances if Achraf Hakimi is in form. The Paris Saint-Germain right back is one of the best attacking fullbacks in world soccer and has pace, skill, good passing and an eye for shooting with eights goals in 53 games for Morocco.
Regragui’s attack-minded approach means that skilful midfielder Younes Belhanda, who plays for Turkish club Adana Demirspor, is pushing for a World Cup place after being recalled.
Belhanda brings valuable experience with 55 national team appearances. He won the league title with Montpellier in 2012, where he was a key provider for France striker Olivier Giroud. So Belhanda’s slick passing might help En-Nesyri rediscover his scoring touch.
Left back Adam Masina was ruled out after suffering a ruptured ligament in his right knee while playing in Italy with Udinese. Highly-rated West Ham center half Nayf Aguerd injured a knee during the offseason but he could be ready in time for Qatar.
WORLD CUP EXPERIENCE
Morocco, which is playing in its sixth World Cup after making its first appearance in 1970, became the first African team to reach the knockout round in 1986.
A remarkable performance saw the Atlas Lions finish ahead of England, Portugal and Poland before being beaten by West Germany 1-0 in the round of 16.
Associated Press writer Tarik El-Barakah in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.
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