Were it not for disruption of the pandemic, an Africa Cup of Nations finals would now be entering its knockout. When circumstances delayed the 2021 tournament for 12 months, club football sighed with relief at not having to go without an assortment of stars for a month.
Nowhere more than Sevilla, whose place in the top four of La Liga, and confidence approaching the last 16 of the Copa del Rey, where they host Valencia on Wednesday owes a great deal to their influential Moroccan contingent, pillars of a thriving team and another advertisement for the excellent of Sevilla’s recruitment.
First and foremost, Youssef En-Nesyri. Ten days ago, he had scored a single hat-trick in his professional career. Now he has three.
There were three goals at home to Real Sociedad, of ever-increasing finesse, the first a tap-in, the second after a determined slalom past three opponents, the third a well-timed run towards the near post to beat his marker and meet a low cross.
At that stage, West Ham United had already tabled a bid to Sevilla of over €30 million ($36.5m) for the 23-year-old striker.
As they contemplated how high to go next after it was turned down, they watched En-Nesyri’s match-winning knack on display again. Against Sociedad, he had put Sevilla in front three times in a see-saw 3-2 victory. At Alaves last Wednesday, he scored the opener in a 2-1 win.
Against Cadiz at the weekend, En-Nesyri put himself at the top of La Liga’s goalscorers with his 10th, 11th, and 12th of the season.
In the form En-Nesyri is in, he can score with his eyes closed. In fact, he advanced towards his second hat-trick in eight days with one eye shut.
Cadiz’s Pedro Alcala had thrust his hand in the face of En-Nesyri as the Moroccan made an advancing run, as the free-kick was awarded, En-Nesyri sought treatment for his left eye. He was still blinking, partially unsighted when he stooped to head in from the free-kick.
“I couldn’t really see,” he admitted afterwards. After some soothing of the swollen eye at half-time, he was back to full 20:20 vision, springing powerfully to head in his third in the 3-0 win.
“I’m happy for his run of form,” said Julen Lopetegui, the Sevilla manager, “but also for the way he’s working with the team. He’s still at a fantastic age to grow and get better.” As if to warn off predatory bids from West Ham or elsewhere, Lopetegui added: “He’s in the right place to do that.”
En Nesyri, a graduate of the Muhammed VI academy in Rabat, joined Sevilla a year ago from Leganes for €20m. He has had his ups and downs. There was a heart-breaking miss in the Uefa Super Cup final against Bayern Munich in September, when, with a chance of giving Sevilla an 88th-minute lead on the counter, he speared his shot wide. There were tears after Bayern won in extra-time.
Comfort was offered by team-mates, led by Yassine Bounou, or Bono as he is mostly known. The goalkeeper has also known setbacks. He battled to establish his first-team place under Lopetegui, and recovered from what might have been a costly error in last season’s Europa League last-32 against Cluj. A long-range shot crept underneath him that would have knocked Sevilla out but for VAR spotting a handball in the build-up.
From there, Bono galvanised the Europa League run, saving a penalty against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the quarter-final, making a string of reaction stops against Manchester United in the semi, and keeping Sevilla on track to beat Inter Milan in the final with a miracle save from Romelu Lukaku. This season, Bono is protecting the second-best defensive record in La Liga.
At the other end, En-Nesyri and Munir El-Haddadi have, between them, scored half of Sevilla’s goals across competitions, the latter used most effectively as an impact substitute.
The former Barcelona striker, 24, aspires to joining his team-mates in Morocco colours, and is involved in a long, legally complex challenge to a Fifa ruling that says the 14 minutes the teenaged Munir played in a Euro 2106 qualifier for Spain, where he was born to Moroccan parents, prevents him appearing for another country.
Meanwhile, the Copa del Rey has been the platform for Oussama Idrissi, the 24-year-old Morocco international winger signed last summer from AZ Alkmaar, to stake a claim to more starts. “I think he can be a big help to us in the second half of the season,” said Lopetegui.