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Will Morocco's football revival continue against Ivory Coast?

It's shaping up to be a great week for Moroccan football, but only if they avoid defeat to the Ivory Coast on Saturday.

Since taking over the Moroccan national side in February 2016 following a successful stint as Ivory Coast boss, Herve Renard has overseen the side's return to prominence in the continental arena.

That promise will be realised this weekend if they avoid defeat against Renard's former charges in Abidjan and secure a return to the World Cup for the first time since 1998.

With Wydad Casablanca downing Al-Ahly 2-1 on aggregate in the CAF Champions League final on Saturday to become the first Moroccan side since Raja Casablanca in 1999 to win the continent's top club honour, the fruit of the nation's revival in recent years is already being seen.

Couple that success with the domestic investment in the football infrastructure, the prominent role of national football president Fouzi Lekjaa within CAF, and the optimism surrounding a 2026 World Cup bid, and Morocco can begin to move on from two decades of underachievement.

Excluding a runners-up finish in 2004, the Atlas Lions didn't escape the group stage at six Africa Cup of Nations tournaments between 2000 and 2017.

The only exceptions were when they didn't qualify in 2010, and when they withdrew as hosts in 2015 amidst concerns about the Ebola crisis, and were duly banned from participating in the reorganised tournament.

Renard ended that miserable streak in 2017 as they escaped from the 'Group of Death' ahead of Ivory Coast and Togo, before falling to eventual runners-up Egypt in the quarter finals when Kahraba netted an 88th-minute winner.

Now Renard is on the cusp of following that 'success' up with a maiden World Cup qualification this decade, with the North Africans failing to reach any of the last four tournaments.

Beyond it being a return to form for the nation that qualified for three of four tournaments between 1986 and 1998 - reaching the Round of 16 in the first of that quartet - it would also represent a significant personal achievement for Renard.

The Frenchman has struggled to build a reputation for himself beyond the African context, having overseen Sochaux's relegation in 2014 before having the rug pulled out from underneath him at LOSC Lille in November 2015, after just 13 matches at the helm.

While he guided Zambia to an unlikely Nations Cup success in 2012, they failed to reach the 2014 World Cup after finishing their group campaign second behind Ghana.

Renard's approach with this Moroccan side has been similar to his strategy with the Chipolopolo and with his 2015 AFCON-winning Elephants team, as he's found a key core of players upon whom he can rely, and then experimented with the problem areas of the side until he found a pragmatic solution that eradicated the side's failings.

Typically, he constructs well-organised sides with a defensive schema that allows the team's more creative, attacking players to express themselves.

During the early stages of Renard's tenure with Morocco - and notably at the Nations Cup - his Lions team boasted defensive resiliency in abundance, but lacked a cutting edge going forward.

Faycal Fajr's deliveries - both from open play and set pieces - emerged as one of few genuinely effective attacking tools, as they struggled to break down the Democratic Republic of Congo and Egypt, and only narrowly bested the Ivorians.

Since that tournament, however, Morocco's offensive options have been refined and supplemented, and it's testament to the quality of their resources that Achraf Bencharki is the only Wydad player to have made the squad for the showdown with the Elephants.

A glance at Renard's squad provides reason for optimism in abundance, with the French coach able to call upon a clutch of talented offensive options to complement his spine of Karim El-Ahmadi, Mbark Boussoufa, Medhi Benatia and Romain Saiss.

Hakim Ziyech - arguably the outstanding individual in the Eredivisie today - is one of Africa's emerging midfield talents, and delivered a sublime showing in the 6-0 evisceration of Mali in September after bouncing back from his Nations Cup snub.

Younes Belhanda has impressed in Turkey with Galatasaray since signing in the summer, and flexed his creative muscles with a pair of assists in the 5-1 victory over Genclerbirligi on Friday, while Sofiane Boufal, too often anonymous since moving to Southampton, netted a wondergoal earlier this month as he reaffirmed his enduring qualities.

In attack, Khalid Boutaib - merely a tertiary option at the AFCON - has been in exceptional form since joining Yeni Malatyaspor from Strasbourg ahead of the season, and currently has six goals in 10 Super Lig outings, not to mention a recent hat-trick against Gabon in a World Cup qualifier.

Should Morocco see off the Elephants to reach Russia, expect Renard to introduce - or re-introduce - several of the players who shone during the CAF Champions League campaign, with Mohamed Ounajem, Walid El Karti and Walid Azaro among the tournament's star performers.

Finally, one intriguing prospect for the Atlas Lions might be Adel Taarabt, who's enjoying a resurgence at Genoa that reflects the national side's return to prominence.

The playmaker, ridiculed as a clown and revered as a genius in (almost) equal measure, has enjoyed a remarkable career that's flitted between fantasy and farce, but a series of fine contributions on loan in Serie A this season won't have gone unnoticed by Renard.

Give Renard time, and he knows how to construct rugged, dogged sides who are tricky to beat. That was never in doubt with Morocco, but they're now beginning to demonstrate that they have the kind of talent around the world that can not only lift them out of the doldrums, but also make them a significant threat in Russia.

They just have to get there first...

Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.


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