Morocco coach Renard wants his fringe players to be ready
By JEROME PUGMIRE
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) Morocco has waited 20 years to return to the World Cup and coach Herve Renard is urging his fringe players to make the most of every opportunity on the world stage.
Even if some players barely see any action, Renard expects the entire squad to put the nation's hopes ahead of their own personal goals when Morocco plays Iran Friday in its Group B opener.
"Maybe you only play five minutes," Renard said Thursday, "but they can be the most important five minutes for your country and your team."
He will not tolerate fringe players moaning about lack of playing time.
"There's always a bit of frustration when you're part of a squad, but you have to work hard and wait for your chance," Renard said. "That's what football is like. They have to be ready and mentally prepared to take up the challenge."
The challenge in Group B will be daunting. Morocco's other opponents are European champion Portugal and 2010 World Cup winner Spain. Despite the challenges, this is no sight-seeing exercise for Morocco.
"We're not just here to take photos of St. Petersburg's monuments," Renard said. "We're here because we're competitors."
In the two-plus years Renard has been in charge, the coach instilled confidence and closeness on the team. Morocco did not concede a goal in the decisive round of qualifying and is unbeaten in 18 games.
"We've been very tough to beat," said captain Mehdi Benatia. "We want to prove we should be respected."
Morocco's previous appearance on the biggest stage was in 1998, about the same time the 49-year-old Renard began his vagabond-like coaching career in the lower echelons of French football. Morocco's star that year was attacking midfielder Mustapha Hadji, who is now one of Renard's two assistants at this tournament.
Morocco has traditionally had skillful midfielders while lacking a clinical center forward. That hasn't appeared to change and the Atlas Lions' hopes are resting on attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech.
Ziyech plays for Ajax in the Dutch first division and has been linked with a number of clubs, including Roma in Italy's Serie A. Renard wants him to secure a dream move through his performances in Russia.
"He has the talent and the skill to do that," said Renard. "For a coach, it's fantastic to have a player with his skill. He sees a lot of things before the others."
Iran's main attacking threat comes from Sardar Azmoun, who has scored 23 goals for his country. While skillful, he could also cause Morocco's defense problems with his strong heading ability.
"He's a striker of the highest quality. But in the qualifiers we came up against Gervinho (Ivory Coast) and (Pierre-Emerick) Aubameyang, and they are tough to stop," Renard said. "We'll be ready to stop him."
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Updated June 14, 2018