Morocco prepare for Afcon litmus test amid Hakim Ziyech's exile distraction

Vahid Halilhodzic's team take on Malawi in knockout phase with some concerns about inconsistency in quality of final pass

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Hakim Ziyech was asked to rate the superb goal he scored on Sunday against Tottenham Hotspur. Smiling, he gave it a 10 out of 10, although not before he had gone through its possible flaws and the element of gamble he felt when he had unleashed the shot.

Until his left-foot strike dipped late to beat and confound Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, Ziyech suspected the effort - struck from close to the edge of the opposition penalty box - might be on its way over the crossbar. So, watching from the technical area, did Thomas Tuchel, his manager.

Ziyech had already put in a performance, in the 2-0 victory, that would rank high in anybody’s marks-out-of-ten - for the consistent quality of the crosses, the confidence in his one-on-one duelling, and capped by the opening goal. It bore the Ziyech trademark, coming at the end of a teasing dribble, and a typical cut inside from the right onto his magic wand of a left foot.

Afterwards, he heard praise from Tuchel. “One of his best matches,” said the German, “taking risks where it was possible to take risks, very reliable on the ball in moments where it is necessary. The work rate was outstanding - you can always rely on him on work rate and counter-pressing. So yes, well done.”

There was also applause, directed at Ziyech, by Romelu Lukaku to salute the brilliance of one of his centres, delivered left to right, which struck a contrast with the much-replayed images of Lukaku and Ziyech arguing about a missed pass during the previous match against Brighton. Ziyech scored in that 1-1 draw, too, though his celebrations were notably muted.

Fact is, Ziyech ought, by most logic, to be somewhere else right now and not supplying four points in as many days to Chelsea’s bid to stay in the Premier League title race. He would, until a few months ago, have expected to start 2022, a World Cup year, by contributing vitally to his country’s campaign to secure a first Africa Cup of Nations title of this century.

But Morocco, for whom 28-year-old Ziyech has 40 caps, embark on the knockout phase of the tournament against Malawi in Yaounde, Cameroon on Tuesday without him.

At issue is not an attritional club-versus-country row of the type that coloured the lead-up to this Cup of Nations, but a manager-against-superstar impasse that has lasted since September when Vahid Halilhodzic, the head coach of Morocco, publicly criticised Ziyech.

“His behaviour during the last two international gatherings has not been what it should be for an international player,” said Halilhodzic, citing a shortfall in commitment at training.

He was referencing the pair of international dates, last March and last June, in between which Ziyech won the Champions League title with Chelsea and contributed crucially to his club’s reaching the FA Cup final. In the past he has captained Morocco; the country has no higher-profile player.

Has he been missed since the exile began? Halilhodzic could point to a record of eight victories and a draw from the nine World Cup-qualifying or Afcon matches since Ziyech was dropped, and the 25 goals Morocco have scored in that run.

He might add that two of Morocco’s goals in Cameroon have been scored by Sofiane Boufal, a player who in the past sometimes seemed overshadowed by Ziyech, a fellow winger, in the national team’s set-up.

But observers of Morocco’s tentative start to the Nations Cup did note an inconsistency in the quality of the final pass, particularly from set-pieces, which are a Ziyech forte. Then Achraf Hakimi stepped up with a stunning free-kick to maintain their unbeaten run, and seal the 2-2 draw with Gabon that completed the group phase.

Speaking ahead of the last-16 meeting with Malawi, Halilhodzic was not ready to be distracted by what the absent Ziyech might be achieving in distant London. But he did stress the virtues of “solidarity, self-sacrifice and the ability to suffer.”

“I know African football,” said Halilhodzic, who is at his third Cup of Nations, having taken Ivory Coast to a quarter-final in 2010 and Algeria to a disappointing group-stage exit in 2013. “I know that to go far at an Afcon you need determination, concentration and discipline.”

Hakimi, the Paris Saint-Germain right-back, will undergo late fitness tests to assess his readiness to take on Malawi, underdogs ranked 119th in the world by Fifa, and 31st in Africa. Morocco are the continent’s second best team on those rankings, but Halilhodzic warned: “I don’t agree with anyone who has us as favourites.

“We’re up against a team who play good football and have great desire. Look at the history. In the last Afcon Morocco went home at exactly this stage.” They were beaten, on penalties, by Benin. “There are no small or easy opponents in Africa.” But there are major stars watching from afar with interest.

Updated: January 25, 2022, 3:23 AM