Hakim Ziyech’s magic left foot casting a spell over Afcon for Morocco

The Atlas Lions hope their star player can maintain form he showed in opening victory over Tanzania

Morocco's midfielder #7 Hakim Ziyach (C) fights for the ball with Tanzania's defender #4 Ibrahim Hamad (DOWN) during the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2024 group F football match between Morocco and Tanzania at Stade Laurent Pokou in San Pedro on January 17, 2024.  (Photo by SIA KAMBOU  /  AFP)
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From Hakim Ziyech’s charmed left foot, great stories unfold. Trace back the adventure that ended with Morocco as the highest-achieving African or Arab nation ever at a World Cup and you have to pause at a November evening in Sharjah, just before Qatar 2022 began.

The Moroccans were playing a warm-up game against Georgia. The pace had slowed. Ziyech, shoulders slouched, was in his own half of the field, scanning the short, safe passes being exchanged by Georgia defenders.

Morocco held their shape, as they tend to so effectively when out of possession, and once Guram Kashia, the Georgia captain thought to thread a pass forward, low and firm, Ziyech was alert, swift to intercept. He was in his own half of the pitch. From there, in a flash, he scored Morocco’s second goal of their three that night.

It was a breathtaking piece of daring. Distance: Close to 60 metres. Backlift: Smooth, discreet and apparently effortless. Trajectory: Immaculate.

That same left foot, poised over a dead ball, has had some stellar moments this season. Like those during the second of Ziyech’s club Galatasaray’s humdinger encounters with Manchester United in the Uefa Champions League during the autumn.

In Istanbul, United were two goals up after 18 minutes. A Ziyech free kick, piercing a gap in the defensive wall, brought Galatasaray back into the contest. At 3-1 behind, a Galatasaray free kick, from longer distance and a tighter angle was entrusted to the same magic wand.

Ziyech pierced all the barricades again, his shot spilt over the line by United goalkeeper Andre Onana. A third whoosh of that magic wand, an elegant, measured pass into the inside right channel set up Galatasaray’s third goal of a contest that effectively eliminated United from European competition for the rest of the season and kept Galatasaray involved in it.

Critics could – and did – roar at Onana and his outfoxed defenders that to be undone more than once by the same artistry is a failure to learn. Yet to know there are many dangers in the Ziyech left foot is not to be insured against damage from them.

Ask Tanzania, bystanders on Wednesday night in San Pedro, Ivory Coast, as Ziyech fired the starter’s gun on what Morocco anticipate as another epoch-defining journey. By half-an-hour into Group F’s opening game at the Africa Cup of Nations, Ziyech’s radar had been set, the magic wand creating chances for centre-forward Youssef En-Nesyri.

Then it had a dead ball, a free kick, to cast its spell on. This time, the backlift was pronounced, the power fierce and the dip and swerve on Ziyech’s shot startling. Goalkeeper Aishi Manula did a better job than Onana in tracking the ball, but he too spilt it. Romain Saiss, the Morocco captain, followed up to score the first goal of Morocco’s 3-0 win.

That’s a handsome scoreline to begin the country’s quest for a first Afcon title since 1976, a start to envy for the other pre-tournament favourites who have found match day one at this Afcon full of discomforts. “We’ve won but we’ll keep our feet on the ground,” said Walid Regragui, Morocco’s manager. “I think we managed things well. We saw the World Cup version of the team.”

Ziyech is the lodestar for that version, the maverick persuaded to reverse his international retirement ahead of the 2022 World Cup, the match-winner who had fallen out so badly with Regragui’s predecessor, Vahid Halilhodzic that he missed the last Afcon, where Morocco exited at the quarter-finals.

There are few more potent left feet at this Afcon than Ziyech’s, although perhaps the importance of Mohamed Salah’s to Egypt is proportionally higher than his to Morocco.

Algeria, meanwhile, would measure the value of Riyad Mahrez’s magic wand in solid Afcon currency. Mahrez was their star when they won the title in 2019.

On Saturday, against a lively Burkina Faso, Mahrez and the Algerians seek a kick-start to their ambition to recapture the title and arrest a barren sequence of Afcon results since they beat Senegal in the final in Cairo.

The 1-1 draw against Angola that ushered them into these finals follows the disastrous pair of defeats and a draw that left them bottom of their group two years ago.

There are signs of anxiety already. Manager Djamel Belmadi has sealed off practice sessions at their base in Bouake from the view of spectators and media, amid some caustic criticism of the way Algeria let a first-half lead slip against Angola, with Mahrez’s performance slammed by Mohamed Aboutrika, the former Egypt star and beIN Sports pundit.

Mahrez, 32 and six months into his Saudi Arabia Pro League career having left Manchester City for Al Ahli after City’s European Cup triumph, remains a vital part of Algeria’s game plan, where the quick, precise through ball, often to Baghdad Bounedjah, is a preferred weapon.

“I’m confident and optimistic about what’s ahead,” said Mahrez, the Algeria captain. “People shouldn’t overdramatise. We had a good first half against Angola, faded a bit in the second and we’re disappointed about that. But there’s two group games left and we’re a good side.”

Updated: January 19, 2024, 7:01 AM