Group B: Atlas Lions Morocco will find it hard to roar in Russia

Herve Renard’s side qualified without conceding but look to be short on firepower

Morocco (500-1)

Who are they?

The Atlas Lions are back at the World Cup for the first time since 1998, when Norway's late, late win over Brazil saw them exit at the group stages in heartbreaking fashion. The first African side to reach the competition's knockout stages in 1986, Morocco would have fancied their chances of repeating the feat in Russia – but the draw was crueller to them than it was to Egypt and Senegal. Herve Renard's side are a very solid and well organised unit – indeed, they navigated their way through qualification without conceding a single goal. The defence is built around Juventus centre half Mehdi Benatia, while Romain Saïss – a constant for Wolverhamption Wanderers during their successful Championship promotion campaign – will offer quality protection for the back four.

Morocco's main issue will be posing a serious goal threat – Southampton's Sofiane Boufal only has six international caps but showed flickers of genuine quality this season and could provide the silk Morocco need to add to their steel. Meanwhile, attacking midfieler Hakim Zayech enjoyed a good season in the Eredivisie, and could be primed for a move away from Ajax. Ultimately though, being grouped with Portugal and Spain means The Atlas Lions are unlikely to roar this summer.

World Cup moment

In 1986 Morocco became the first African nation to progress from the group stages, topping a group including England, Portugal and Poland before an agonising 1-0 defeat to eventual runners-up West Germany in the last-16. Trailblazers.

How did they get here?

Morocco topped one of the trickier African qualification groups without conceding a goal. There were three 0-0 draws, as well as a 6-0 win at home to Mali, a 3-0 win at home to Gabon and a 2-0 win away to the Ivory Coast.


The gaffer

Morocco’s defensive record during qualification gives an indication of Herve Renard’s strengths as a coach. The Frenchman is a tournament specialist – he was the first manager to win two African Cup of Nations titles with two different countries, guiding Zambia to glory in 2012, and winning it with the Ivory Coast in 2015.

The main man

Morocco’s best chance of progressing from the group stages is by keeping things tight and hoping to snuff out the attacking prowess of Spain and Portugal – Juve centre half Mehdi Benatia will be crucial to their hopes of doing so. The 31-year-old gave away the crucial penalty at the Bernabeu which saw Real Madrid qualify for the semi-finals of the Champions League but he is generally a towering and influential presence at the back.

The one to watch

There will be more thrilling players on show in Russia but Romain Saïss was a regular for Wolves this season, becoming a crowd favourite at Molineux as they earned promotion to the Premier League. The defensive midfielder cites Sergio Busquets as his football idol – the two should meet in Group B.

The verdict

The draw wasn’t kind to Morocco, and while they might be solid defensively Spain and Portugal are two sides capable of breaking anyone down. A group stage exit awaits.

The squad

Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger).

Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolves), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir), Badr Benoun (Raja Casablanca), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (LOSC).

Midfielders: M'barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (Getafe), Amine Harit (Schalke 04).

Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (Saint Pauli), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes), Mehdi Carcela (Standard de Liege), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax).

Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden is a former sports journalist with The Irish Times