Midfield contest crucial as Morocco faces Iran
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.