Hakim Ziyech says Morocco believe they can progress from Group B ahead of their opening World Cup clash with Iran in St. Petersburg on Friday.
Both Morocco and Iran could be forgiven for feeling hard done by when they were pitted against 2010 winners Spain and reigning European champions Portugal in the group stage.
The turmoil in the Spain camp following the sacking of Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament and Fernando Hierro’s appointment for the duration of the event may give hope to both sides.
Morocco are playing in a World Cup for the first time since 1998, when Iran claimed their sole win in the history of the tournament, and Ziyech says confidence in the camp is high.
Ziyech told KweseESPN: “If we don’t believe that we can progress, what is the point of going to the tournament?
“This is a difficult group, but if we look at it through a positive lens it can be good… good for us as players, but also good for us as a country.
“To play against these kinds of countries will be difficult, but it will be nice too. Playing against the likes of [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Andres] Iniesta is a great motivation, but we believe in ourselves.”
Iran are playing in successive World Cups after exiting the 2014 tournament with just a point, though only a last-gasp Lionel Messi free-kick denied them a draw with Argentina.
Their preparation has been bizarrely hindered by Nike’s refusal to supply the squad with boots for the tournament because of economic sanctions imposed against the country by the United States.
That decision left coach Carlos Queiroz furious but he told Sky Sports that it would be “a source of inspiration” for Iran as they seek to end their long wait for a second win.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Morocco – Hakim Ziyech
Ziyech is one of five Dutch-born players in the Morocco squad and could be the most influential. He played a starring role for Ajax in the Eredivisie last season with nine goals and 15 assists and Morocco will have a much better chance of progressing if he can deliver similar form on the biggest stage.
Iran – Mehdi Taremi
Taremi has had some off-the-field issues, including a four-month ban following a contract dispute with Turkish side Caykur Rizespor, but his eight goals in qualification were a key reason for Iran’s progression to the finals.
KEY OPTA STATS
– Morocco have won only two of their 13 games at the World Cup (D4 L7), including five defeats in their last seven games (W1 D1). They’ve also never won an opening game in the competition (D2 L2).
– Morocco were the only team not to concede a single goal in the third round of CAF qualifiers for Russia 2018 (six games).
– Iran have qualified for the World Cup in back-to-back tournaments for the first time. However, they have never reached the knockout stages, winning only one of their 12 games (D3 L8) – against USA on 21 June 1998 (2-1).
– Iran have also only kept one clean sheet in their 12 World Cup games (0-0 v Nigeria, June 2014), scoring more than one goal only once, in their sole win against USA in 1998.
– Iran were unbeaten in their qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup, winning 12 games and drawing the other six (AFC second round & third round). They also kept 14 clean sheets in those 18 games.