It was only a very short while ago that Raja Casablanca were a club in crisis. The defeats were coming thick and fast for the reigning Moroccan champions, triggering the departure of coach Mohamed Fakhir just a few days before the start of the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013.
And yet in the space of just a week and three matches, Les Rajaouis have rediscovered their winning touch, capping their revival by beating Atletico Mineiro in Wednesday’s semi-final, an unexpected triumph that has booked them a date with the mighty FC Bayern Munchen on Saturday.
“The dream is far from over yet and we’ll be giving it all we have against Bayern, right up to the final whistle,” a jubilant Mouhssine Iajour told FIFA.com after scoring a goal and winning a penalty against the Brazilians, who momentarily pulled level at 1-1 only to fall to a 3-1 defeat. “We never give up. This team has got so much mental strength to draw on.”
It is hard to accuse the striker of going over the top. Three times the African outfit have opened the scoring at Morocco 2013, three times they have been pegged back, and three times they have dug deep late on to secure their place in the next round.
“It’s difficult to explain how you feel at moments like this,” said Chemseddine Chtibi, who was on the scoresheet for Raja against CF Monterrey in Saturday’s quarter-final. “We’ve been on a high even though we haven’t been considered favourites, and we’ve never stopped believing in our chances.”
An unshakeable belief is far from the only factor in Raja’s thrilling run to the FIFA Club World Cup final. Their newly installed coach Faouzi Benzarti has also had his part to play in their unlikely renaissance.
“He’s definitely got the best out of us and given us fresh confidence after an unfortunate run of results,” said Iajour, who with two goals to his name and one game to play has designs on ending the tournament as its top scorer. “And his approach is more attack-minded than our previous coach. He always wants us to attack, no matter what the state of the game is.”
A winning blend
The late introduction of midfielder Deo Kanda in two of Raja’s three games to date is an indication of that, the Congolese using his pace and ability to get behind defences to help tilt the balance against both Auckland City and Atletico.
“We had a good, close look at Atletico before the game and we knew they would try to put pressure on our midfield,” said Kanda, who came on against the New Zealand club with the score tied at 1-1 and set up Abdelilah Hafidi’s late winner. “We were aware that if we could hold Atletico off and play the ball out intelligently and quickly to the wings, then we’d have the chance to catch them on the break.”
The frequency of those counter-attacks increased as O Galo upped their possession percentage, with Les Rajouis breaking to perfection. Played in by Hafidi, Iajour put his side ahead with a firm low drive before popping up at the end of the match to draw a foul from Rever inside the box, with Mohcine Moutaouali stepping up confidently to convert the spot-kick. The icing on the Raja cake came when substitute Vivien Mabide prodded the ball into an empty net after Moutaouli had struck the crossbar at the end of yet another lightning counter.
Aside from their drive, determination and a perfectly executed gameplan, the Moroccans also have another key asset in their favour, namely the fervent support of their fans, who drowned out the noise generated by the nearly 10,000 Galo supporters at the Marrakech Stadium.
“It’s like having the whole of Morocco behind us. You can achieve the most amazing things with support like that,” said Chtibi in reference to the explosions of noise that accompanied each of Raja’s three goals.
“It makes us so happy to see so much jubilation when we win. What’s more, they’re also inspiring us to perform better and better,” explained Iajour.
It all bodes very well indeed for the final of Bayern, when the streets of Marrakech and Casablanca are sure to be awash with noise and colour.