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FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff preview: Morocco vs. DR Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is looking to qualify for its first FIFA World Cup since being the first ever African nation to qualify in 1974 when it was known as Zaire but favorite Morocco stands between them and their goal with a strong team. Pan-Africa Football takes a look at which players could make the difference for both teams and evaluates how the managers may line up their teams for the crucial two-legged duel:

Morocco

Manager: Vahid Halilhodžić

Key Players

Achraf Hakimi

The last four years have been an incredible rise to prominence for the Spanish-born Real Madrid youth product since the full back moved to Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund on loan in 2018. The 23-year-old was featured in the Bundesliga Team of the Year in his second season at Dortmund, then followed that up with a one-season spell where he won the Serie A with Inter Milan while once again making the Team of the Year for the 2019-20 campaign. Now a full fledged star at club Paris Saint-Germain, Hakimi is also Morocco’s most important player due to his attacking prowess and captivated Atlas Lions supporters with his free kick heroics at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.

Romain Saïss

The rugged Wolverhampton Wanderers center back is tough as nails and is a keystone in the formidable Moroccan defense. The 31-year-old veteran became the Atlas Lions captain at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, earning the trust of manager Halilhodžić with his excellence on aerial duels and composure when defending in 1-on-1 situations. Originally a midfielder at the beginning of his career, the left-footed Saïss also possesses adequate technical ability to make him a complete defender. Keep an eye out for him on Morocco’s attacking set pieces.

Sofiane Boufal

The former Lille and Southampton winger faced plenty of criticism for club and national team due to the fact that despite his dribbling ability, he failed to deliver goals and a consistent final product in the final third. However, after experiencing heartbreak when he was overlooked by previous Morocco manager Hervé Renard for the 2018 FIFA World Cup squad, Boufal responded to similar criticism from Halilhodžić to become a star this past year for the Atlas Lions. The 28-year-old Angers player graduated from being an impact substitute during the group stage of the current World Cup qualifying campaign to become Morocco’s most influential attacker by scoring three of his four international goals at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. Boufal loves to cut inside from the left wing and dribble at defenders before shooting with his preferred right foot.

Expected formation and team profile

It is difficult to predict exactly how manager Halilhodžić will set his team with plenty of variance between using one or two strikers to lead his offensive line, but it seems that when the stakes are at their highest the Bosnian tends to prefer one striker with supporting wingers. At the 2021 AFCON, Morocco’s strikers failed to deliver and it is difficult to imagine him trusting a two-striker approach with multiple options struggling at club level.

Ayoub El Kaabi is the current leading scorer in the Turkish Super League with seven of his fifteen goals coming in the last month, making him the prime candidate to lead the line over inconsistent Sevilla forwards Youssef En-Nesyri and Munir El Haddadi. Ryan Mmaee is also an in-form option who brings physicality. El Haddadi remains an option on the right wing, which could see any of El Haddadi, Imran Louza, young FC Barcelona newcomer Abde Ezzalzouli or the in-form Tarik Tissoudali used as the starter. Boufal remains the guaranteed starter on the left wing.

Selim Amallah and Sofyan Amrabat are irreplaceable options in the center of the midfield with Amallah’s ability to get forward a good contrast to Amrabat’s skill at doing the less glamourous defensive work. Queens Park Rangers creative midfielder Ilias Chair has shown potential in patches but veteran Fayçal Fajr offers a steadier if unspectacular option.

The defense picks itself for Morocco with Saïss and Nayef Aguerd bringing towering presences in the center of defense while Watford left back Adam Masina will likely be on the opposite side of Hakimi on the right. Goalkeeper Yassine Bounou is one of Africa’s best goalkeepers but is reportedly questionable due to an injury this past weekend for club Sevilla. However, Munir Mohammedi, the starter at the 2018 World Cup, is a more than reliable backup if Bounou cannot go.

DR Congo

Manager: Héctor Cúper

Key Players

Dieumerci Mbokani & Cédric Bakambu

The Leopards will lean upon their reliable veteran forwards in Mbokani and Bakambu, who are close friends off the pitch with the 36-year-old Mbokani being convinced by Bakambu to return to the Congolese side after previously retiring from international duty following qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Mbokani is a traditional number nine, a predator in the penalty area who excels at finishing crosses as well as at holding off defenders when in possession of the ball. Olympique Marseille striker Bakambu has more variety and speed with the ability to run at defenders to complement his finishing.

Gaël Kakuta

Whenever the former Chelsea playmaker suits up for DR Congo he adds an element that the Leopards sorely lack, the ability to break down defenses with his creativity. Kakuta does not appear as frequently for his national team as much as Congolese supporters would like but after shaking off injuries was able to be an important contributor in the final two qualifying games, decisive victories at Tanzania and at home against Benin. The former prodigy and French youth national team star has taken time to find stability in his club career and is now a reliable star at childhood club RC Lens.

Marcel Tisserand

In a team that depends on its veterans for success, the Fenerbahçe defender and Clairefontaine graduate adds leadership and composure with the ability to play either centrally or out wide. With central midfielder Samuel Moutoussamy out injured, there is a decent chance that the versatile Chancel Mbemba will move into midfield leaving Tisserand to step back into the starting lineup alongside Christian Luyindama in the heart of defense. The big question is how physically ready the 29-year-old is for the big occasion since 2022 has been filled with injuries and inconsistent playing time in Turkish football.

Expected formation and team profile

Manager Héctor Cúper has a notorious reputation for having his teams play results-oriented football that is not the most pleasing to the eye, but the Argentine’s solid record cannot be disputed. Since becoming manager of the Congolese team over the summer, Cúper experimented with different formations during the summer friendlies before settling on a 4-4-2 due to the return of reliable veteran strikers Mbokani and Bakambu. Considering the limited time he had to prepare for qualifying, the team has responded excellently to Cúper’s tactics.

With the absence of regular starting central midfielder Moutoussamy, the likely possibility is that Cúper will shift natural center back Mbemba into the midfield where he has featured often at national team level. Full backs Masuaku and Amale are threats when crossing from the flanks, but will have plenty of defensive responsibility due to the attacking playmakers playing in front of them.

Kakuta will have freedom to roam around whether he lines up on the right or left, but the addition of Belgian-born Théo Bongonda gives Cúper a speed threat on the opposite wing who is in excellent goal scoring form for club KRC Genk. Bongonda made his Leopards debut in a friendly against Bahrain earlier this year after switching his international allegiance and appears to be expected to jump right into the starting lineup.

Prediction

Morocco are probably the favorites to advance to Qatar 2022 but this DR Congo team has improved by leaps and bounds since a disappointing 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. This tie will likely be decided by the slimmest of margins considering that the Congolese are at full strength, but Morocco’s strong defense and ability to capitalize on set pieces gives the Atlas Lions the edge.

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