In Focus: Ziyech has put Atlas Lions on the map in Qatar
Hakim Ziyech may be on the periphery at Chelsea but he is Morocco’s leading light in Qatar.
The winger, 29, has been one of the stars of his country’s remarkable World Cup campaign — grabbing a goal and assist on the way to them topping a difficult-looking Group F.
Ahead of the Atlas Lions’ mouth-watering last-16 clash with 2010 champions Spain, we turn the spotlight on their main man.
With the likes of Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi and Youssef En-Nesyri in their ranks, Morocco will have been quietly confident of upsetting a few at Qatar 2022.
But even the most ambitious of supporters may not have envisaged their team topping a group that contained respective finalists and semi-finalists from 2018 Croatia and Belgium, as well as dangerous debutants Canada, with seven points.
A 0-0 draw with the Croatians in their first game was far from a bad result, before impressive victories in their final outings sparked jubilant scenes — Morocco reaching the last 16 of a World Cup for only the second time ever.
A late return
There is every chance that Ziyech could have been watching from home had things panned out differently.
Reported attitude problems meant the 46-cap international had not featured for his country for the best part of a year in the run-up to Qatar.
The player even announced his international retirement in February following his continued snubs by former boss Vahid Halilhodzic.
Ziyech said in February: "It's my final decision. I will not return to the national team. I understand and I feel sorry for the fans."
But fast forward 10 months and things look a lot different, with new boss Walid Regragui now in charge and Ziyech restored to being one of the first names on the team sheet.
Feeling the love
It seems Regragui has cracked the magic formula with Ziyech, with arguably no player more integral to the Atlas Lions’ glorious World Cup campaign so far than the Chelsea man.
He has created more chances (four) and took players on more times (seven) than any of his team-mates, with only Sofyan Amrabat and Hakimi taking more touches for Morocco across the group stage (166).
In an influential display against Belgium, Morocco found the net early after Ziyech’s wicked left-footed set-piece delivery flew past Thibault Courtois — only for VAR to rule the goal out.
Ziyech continued to lead his team from the front though and after Roman Saiss guided home Morocco’s opener, the 29-year-old was the driving force behind their game-sealing goal in stoppage time.
Latching onto a long ball up-field, Ziyech showed exceptional pace and balance to twist past Timothy Castagne and tee up Zakaria Aboukhlal to fire home and secure a famous win.
After that excellent display, the Morocco boss said of his star man: "He’s incredible. A lot of people talk about him as a difficult guy to manage but what I see is that, when you give him love and confidence, he will die for you.
"It is what I give him and he returns my confidence."
Ziyech was at it again from the start in the next game against Canada as he latched onto a mistake by goalkeeper Milan Borjan before lofting a fine first-time effort into the net from 25 yards out in a 2-1 victory.
His exploits at Qatar have served as a reminder of Ziyech’s immense quality after a difficult spell at Stamford Bridge.
Much was expected of the forward when he arrived for £34.5million in the summer of 2020 but he has struggled to impress on a regular basis for the Blues.
Having started only one of Chelsea’s 13 Premier League games this term, his departure from West London in January seems inevitable.
AC Milan were reportedly keen on Ziyech in the summer and are said to be the frontrunners for a loan move in the new year.
But as he continues to impress in the Middle East, potential moves to Premier League rivals Tottenham and Manchester United are also rumoured to be in the offing.
Both are looking to bolster their options in attack and, as his international redemption has shown, there is no doubting the quality Ziyech can bring when handed a starring role.
Though Spain is a mammoth obstacle for Morocco to overcome next, you can be sure Ziyech will be heavily involved should they stun La Roja to reach their first-ever World Cup quarter-final.