Marauding full-back Hakimi key to Morocco's attacking arsenal
Morocco defender Achraf Hakimi has already achieved a lot for a player who has just turned 24.
He has played for Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Paris St Germain, winning the Champions League, Italian and French league titles with those clubs respectively, has more than 50 caps and is preparing for his second World Cup.
The Spain-born right back came through Real's youth academy before breaking into the senior team in 2017. He was part of the side that won the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup titles in the 2017-18 campaign.
But Hakimi, who can also play at left back and wing-back, could not hold down a regular place at Real, joining Borussia Dortmund on loan in 2018.
He starred in Germany over two seasons with Dortmund before joining Inter where he won Serie A in 2020-2021 before moving to Paris Saint-Germain the following season, adding the Ligue 1 title to his collection of silverware last term.
A modern full back, Hakimi has a knack of pushing forward down the flank, unsettling backlines with his efficiency. He has scored more than 20 goals at club level, a decent tally for a defender who made his professional debut five years ago.
Hakimi is equally efficient on the left side, a position in which he excelled at Dortmund.
With Morocco, Hakimi played as a right back under former boss Vahid Halilhodzic but new coach Walid Regragui, who succeeded the Bosnian in September, fielded him at left back in Morocco's last friendly before the World Cup against Paraguay to make way for Bayern Munich right back Nassir Mazraoui, who has recently returned to Morocco's fold.
But in Qatar Hakimi will likely play in his preferred right back position as Morocco hope his tireless runs down the wing and perfect execution of set-pieces, from which he scored twice in the Africa Cup of Nations last January, will lead the Atlas Lions to a surprise qualification for the second round from a tough group including world champions France, Denmark and Canada.
World Cup preparations clouded by coach controversy
Morocco's build-up to the World Cup has been overshadowed by controversy over the coach as they face a daunting task as they bid to replicate their 1986 feat when they became the first African nation to reach the second round.
Morocco sacked Vahid Halilhodzic in August, a few months before the finals, after a long dispute between the Bosnian coach and the Moroccan FA president over player selection.
Last year, Halilhodzic excluded Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech and Bayern Munich defender Noussair Mazraoui for disciplinary reasons and resisted calls by FA chief Fouzi Lekjaa to restore them to the squad.
Halilhodzic was subsequently dismissed by the country's FA, which appointed former Morocco international Walid Regragui as his successor after he impressed at club level.
Regragui, 47, included Ziyech and Mazraoui in his first squad and the pair started the friendlies against Chile and Paraguay in September.
"Hakim Ziyech has returned to the national team because he deserves it ... When you see how Hakim plays, you say to yourself it is difficult not to include him in the World Cup (squad)," said Regragui.
The coach won the league title in Qatar with Duhail in 2020 before leading Morocco's Wydad to the domestic league and African Champions League double this year.
Morocco have not made it past the group stage since reaching the second round in 1986 in Mexico and they are in a tough group that includes the world's second-ranked team Belgium and the 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia plus fast improving Canada.
"I know that preparation for the World Cup was short ... We will fight to make the Moroccan fans happy," Regragui said after his appointment in early September.
Morocco, who lost only twice in 12 matches in 2022, begin their campaign in Qatar against Croatia, who lost to France in the 2018 final, before facing Belgium in their second Group F game.
They are hoping to defy expectations and clinch at least a point from each of their first two games before facing Canada in a match that may represent their best chance of recording their first victory at the finals since 1998.
Following is a statbox on Morocco at the World Cup:
FIFA Ranking: 22
Previous tournaments: Morocco have appeared in five World Cups. Their best performance was in 1986 when they became the first African country to reach the second round, where they lost to a last-gasp goal by eventual finalists West Germany. Since then Morocco have always been eliminated at the group stage.
How they qualified
Morocco cruised comfortably through the African qualifiers, with a perfect record in six games in a group that included Guinea Bissau, Guinea and Sudan. In the playoffs, Morocco beat DR Congo 5-2 on aggregate to reach their sixth World Cup.
After securing qualification in March, Morocco lost 3-0 in a friendly against the United States in June, but started their 2023 African Nations Cup qualifiers later in the month with two victories, over South Africa and Liberia. They beat Chile in September before being held to a 0-0 draw by Paraguay in Spain.