Midfield contest crucial as Morocco faces Iran at World Cup
By JEROME PUGMIRE
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) With Morocco and Iran both priding themselves on rock-solid defending and relentless pressing in midfield, their Group B opener at the World Cup on Friday might look destined to be a stifling match.
Morocco didn't concede a goal in the decisive round of qualifying and Juventus center half Mehdi Benatia provides exceptional leadership at the back. He is the finest defender on either side, and arguably among the best at the tournament.
Iran was unbeaten in 10 qualifiers, keeping nine straight clean sheets and only letting two in during the last game - by which time coach Carlos Queiroz's side had already qualified .
While statistics point to a scrappy contest at St. Petersburg stadium, this perhaps underestimates the flair in both sides.
Iran's two-pronged threat comes from Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun.
Jahanbakhsh is two-footed and finished as top scorer in the Dutch league with 21 goals for AZ Alkmaar.
Azmoun is equally skillful, but gives Queiroz a different option with his heading ability. He is already fifth on Iran's all-time list with 23 goals despite being only 23 years old.
Given how evenly-matched the sides are, dominating the midfield battle is crucial.
Morocco has the edge here in terms of experience and craft, with Younes Belhanda pulling the strings with his clever passing.
The Galatasaray playmaker is tough to knock off the ball and has an eye for goal when it takes him, as he demonstrated during previous spells with Montpellier and Dynamo Kiev.
It is testament to the strength of Morocco's midfield that coach Herve Renard felt justified leaving out Sofiane Boufal, a superb dribbler who scored the Premier League's Goal of the Season for Southampton after an extraordinary solo run.
Perhaps Renard felt Boufal's unpredictability would unbalance his midfield by making it too conditioned to attack.
He probably feels he has enough skill, anyway, especially with mercurial Ajax winger Hakim Ziyech creating chances for striker Khalid Boutaib. They average a goal every other game for the Atlas Lions.
Ziyech and Belhanda are both good free-kick takers, giving Renard further options to outwit the more experienced Queiroz.
Renard has a knack for getting the best out of African sides, especially against the odds.
His greatest feat was leading Zambia to an unexpected African Cup of Nations title in 2012. He followed that up by ending Ivory Coast's agonizingly long bid to recapture the African title in 2015.
The 49-year-old Frenchman, with his beaming smile and snappy appearance, is camera-friendly - especially given his quirky tradition of wearing a lucky white shirt at games.
He has instilled great belief in a traditionally inconsistent Morocco side which is unbeaten in 18 games.
Taking charge a little more than two years ago, Renard quickly identified the need for greater unity in a volatile squad.
To help reassure the players and bridge the gap between generations, he hired a well-respected figurehead - Mustapha Hadji - as one of his two assistant coaches.
The fleet-footed Hadji was the team's star at the 1998 World Cup, which also was the nation's last appearance on the big stage.
But Morocco has already lost one contest before its opening game: the bid to host the 2026 World Cup.
The 65-year-old Queiroz has been in charge since 2011 and has guided Iran to a second straight World Cup appearance.
He knows all about discipline and tactical innovation, having previously worked as an assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Queiroz is more of a pragmatist than a revolutionary these days, maximizing the talent at his disposal.
A well-drilled defense was also the hallmark of his side four years ago in Brazil, when Argentina needed an injury-time goal from star forward Lionel Messi to win 1-0.
Queiroz is likely to deploy a 4-3-3 formation to stop Morocco building patiently from midfield, while his side can slip into a 4-1-4-1 to offer the defense greater protection when Morocco breaks forward.
One drawback is the suspension of key holding midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi. He received a two-game ban following a red card against South Korea in qualifying last August.
Friday's match could effectively decide third place.
Whether Morocco has enough to get out of the group stage for only the second time, and Iran its first, appears unlikely considering Group B also contains European champion Portugal and 2010 World Cup winner Spain. But its chances may have just improved after Spain threw its own campaign into turmoil by firing its coach .
AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire
Updated June 13, 2018