El Kaabi, Rahimi and the Moroccan masters putting on a show across the globe

Atlas Lions stars are having a huge impact on the biggest competitions, with El Kaabi looking to cap stunning form for Olympiakos with victory in Europa Conference League final

Olympiakos striker Ayoub El Kaabi celebrates with Kostas Fortounis after scoring his second goal in the Europa Conference League semi-final second leg victory against Aston Villa. Reuters
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It had been a humid, sapping evening for the best national team from Africa and the Arab world. They were trailing in San Pedro, Morocco’s coastal base in Ivory Coast for the Africa Cup of Nations, and by the end of the night they were out of the tournament, shell-shocked.

They had missed a penalty, had a man sent off and finished 2-0 losers to an unfancied South Africa at the first knockout hurdle. They headed home bemoaning their lack of firepower up front.

That was late January, a low point in Moroccan football’s two years of gathering belief and swagger across the international stage, a climb that reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup. As the club season comes to its close, Morocco's finest are again putting on a show of impressive firepower across the globe.

It is led by Soufiane Rahimi, Al Ain’s favourite Casablancan, showered with applause for his outstanding impact on an Asian Champions League that had Cristiano Ronaldo among its supporting cast.

This weekend, Rahimi’s compatriot, the winger Oussama Idrissi will contest the final of North and Central America’s equivalent competition, a Concacaf Champions Cup that included Lionel Messi up to its quarter-finals.

In Europe’s most prestigious club tournaments, a pair of Atlas Lions meanwhile stand 90 minutes from a trophy lift. At Wembley on Saturday, Brahim Diaz chases a Uefa Champions League to complement his Liga title with Real Madrid. In Athens on Wednesday, Ayoub El Kaabi brings down the curtain on a gilded run of form.

El Kaabi will be leading the line for Olympiakos in a city where the club’s support is concentrated in the final of the Europa Conference League, against Italy’s Fiorentina. It will be El Kaabi’s 17th start in Uefa competition this term; he’s on 15 goals so far.

Suffice to say that without the 30 year old, much-travelled centre-forward, Olympiakos would not be preparing for their first major continental final, for the climax of a rollercoaster journey that began with pre-qualifying for the Europa League back in August. They stuttered out of the group phase of that tournament in December and, on entering the Conference League, El Kaabi set about making it his personal theatre.

He had scarcely returned, sparingly used by Walid Regragui, Morocco’s head coach, from that gloomy Cup of Nations when he netted both goals in Olympiakos’ 2-0 aggregate win over Ferencvaros.

His thumping header then sealed the first comeback of a last-16 tie that had swung wildly away from the Greek club with their 4-1 loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the first leg. In the second, it would be El Kaabi who made it 4-4 on aggregate. He then restored parity for 5-5 with a glorious overhead volley to take the tie into extra time, where his fellow Moroccan, the veteran Youssef El Arabi came off the bench to seal a 6-1 win on the night.

“He’s a smart footballer,” beams Jose Luis Mendilibar, the Olympiakos head coach, who is reminded, when working with El Kaabi, of some of the assets of Morocco’s favoured centre-forward under Regragui, Youssef En-Nesyri.

En-Nesyri’s goals helped Mendilibar’s Sevilla to a victorious Europa League final 12 months ago.

The pair have in common their target-man qualities, strong and brave in the air. El Kaabi can be devastating on the counter-attack, too. Witness his exhibition in Olympiakos’ semi-final dismantling of Aston Villa, when his composed finishing and alert movement behind the last line of defence were key to two virtuoso performances. El Kaabi added two goals in the second leg to the hat-trick he scored at Villa Park in the first.

Mendilibar, who took over at Olympiakos in February, has “given me confidence, let me feel more comfortable on the pitch, and allowed me more freedom,” El Kaabi told Uefa's official site. Certainly, he has never been more effective as a finisher, averaging a goal per game in the Greek league in this, his first season at Olympiakos.

They are his seventh senior club of a career that has crossed three continents and been characterised by persistence and adaptability. El Kaabi grew up without privilege, supplementing his income as a teenager in Casablanca with work as a carpenter’s assistant. “I learnt life is not easy,” he says of that period.

His early path into professional football skirted the better Moroccan academies and he made his way up the divisions, his goals for RS Berkane in 2017/18 earning him a rare spot, for a locally based player, in the Atlas Lions squad that went to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where Morocco exited at the group stage.

From there, there was a stint in China, some success with Wydad back in Morocco, spells in Turkey and Qatar and the disappointment, shared by Rahimi, of not being included in Regragui’s plans for the 2022 World Cup. There Morocco made history by reaching the last four, an unprecedented World Cup placing for any Mena team.

It set a high bar. Hence the dispiriting anti-climax of this year’s Afcon, one that looks all the more baffling given the ample evidence of Moroccan potency in elite club football. But Al Ain’s Rahimi was not at the Nations Cup, Al Kaabi was there as second-choice behind En-Nesyri at centre-forward, and Madrid’s Brahim, a former Spain Under-21 international, had not at that stage committed his international future to Morocco, which he did in March.

Their respective achievements for their clubs, coupled with compatriot winger Amine Adli’s part in Bayer Leverkusen’s stunning Bundesliga and German Cup double and progress to last week’s Europa League final, bode well for Regragui, who his week named Rahimi, alongside El Kaabi, in his squad for next month’s World Cup qualifiers against Zambia and Congo.

He praised Rahimi for his versatility – “he can play in any position, coming from wide or through the middle” – and highlighted the confidence several of his attacking players would bring to a dressing-room still reeling from January’s Afcon setback.

“I prefer my strikers to come to us from their clubs with confidence rather than with doubts,” said Regragui. “But I have no doubt we have very good forwards. It’s up to me to keep them at their best level.”

Updated: May 29, 2024, 2:46 AM