Mid­field con­test cru­cial as Morocco faces Iran

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

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.

AT­TACK­ING DUO

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.

MID­FIELD CON­TEST

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.

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