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World Cup 2018 team preview: Morocco is your trendy dark horse

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group B is Morocco.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group B: 7.7%
Odds to advance: 20%
Odds to win World Cup: 0.4%
Elo rank: 41
Yahoo Sports power rank: 24

Our writers say: Morocco scored 11 goals during the final round of qualifying and conceded zero. It will be a popular dark horse in Russia, and rightly so. It has a diverse collection of European-born talent headlined by Juventus’ Medhi Benatia. The Atlas Lions are outsiders in a group that accounts for the last three European championships, but they’re capable of springing a surprise. Henry Bushnell

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Medhi Benatia captains one of the 2018 World Cup’s most dangerous underdogs, Morocco. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 5th
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1986)
2014 finish: Did not qualify
Qualifying: Topped Africa’s Group C ahead of the Ivory Coast
Schedule: Iran (Friday, June 15, 11 a.m., Fox), Portugal (Wednesday, June 20, 8 a.m., FS1), Spain (Monday, June 25, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group B preview]

Squad

Manager: Herve Renard
Captain: Medhi Benatia (D)
Top players: Benatia, Hakim Ziyech (M)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: There’s a lot to like throughout the squad, but especially in the middle and defensive thirds. Benatia anchors a well-rounded, well-organized defense. The midfield has both structure and creativity. Younes Belhanda, Mbark Boussoufa and Ziyech, in particular, can keep the ball and move it well. Plus, they all fit into a tried and trusted system under the best manager in Africa, Renard – a Frenchman who has won Africa Cup of Nations titles with both Zambia and the Ivory Coast.

Why they’ll lose games: There are question marks – not necessarily weaknesses, but reasons for skepticism – at either end of the pitch. Goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi has never played a minute of top-flight professional soccer. Khalid Boutaib came out of nowhere to claim the starting striker role, and has been in top form in a Morocco shirt, but he’s 31 and not exactly accomplished at club level. Both players excelled during qualifying, but there’s reason to think they’ll be outclassed in Russia.

How they’ll play: They’ll possess and press in a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1. In midfield, Boussoufa’s preeminent skills are on-ball ones, but he’s slid into a deeper role. Morocco doesn’t see opponents as talented as Portugal and Spain in Africa, but chances are it’ll go right at the Portuguese, albeit perhaps from a deeper starting point.

Projected lineup (4-1-4-1): Munir Mohamedi; Nabil Dirar, Medhi Benatia, Romain Saiss, Achraf Hakimi; Karim El Ahmadi; Nordin Amrabat, Younes Belhanda, Mbark Boussoufa, Hakim Ziyech; Khalid Boutaib.

Hakimi, a Real Madrid youngster, could start at either fullback position. Dirar missed all three pre-World Cup friendlies with an injury, so if he doesn’t make it back for the Iran game, Hakimi will play on the right and Hamza Mendyl will likely play on the left of defense.

There’s also a chance Ayoub El Kaabi beats out Boutaib for the No. 9 role. But other than that, the 11 is set. Amine Harit and Faycal Fajr are both quality options off the bench.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: Of the players who appeared for Morocco during qualifying, 61.5 percent were born outside the country – in nations such as France, the Netherlands and Spain – by far the highest percentage of any World Cup team. Of the 23 going to Russia, 17 were board abroad – again, by far the most of any World Cup participant. The Moroccans even tried to recruit 22-year-old Spanish forward Munir El Haddadi, but had an appeal turned down because El Haddadi had already played for Spain in a Euro qualifier.

Why to root for them: Because you’ll be the first on a bandwagon that will be overflowing after they upset Portugal. (Seriously, there’s legitimate quarterfinal potential here.)

Why to root against them: Because they’re going to become too popular of a dark horse. (Update: They haven’t become too popular. So root for them.)

If you’re going to watch one game … The Iran game will tell us whether they have a shot to advance. The Portugal clash, though – especially if Morocco beats Iran and Portugal loses to Spain in their respective openers – could be a must-watch.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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