To say that Raja Casablanca went into the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013 a little out of sorts would be a major understatement. Without a win in several games, a run that forced them to replace their coach in the run-up to the tournament, Les Rajaouis were also handicapped by striker Mouhssine Iajour’s loss of form in front of goal, all of which pointed to a difficult tournament for both club and player
Yet nothing could have been further from the truth as the men from Casablanca saw off Auckland City FC, CF Monterrey and Atletico Mineiro in succession to unexpectedly check into Saturday’s final, where they will face FC Bayern Munchen. To those three notable victories can be added a fourth over an altogether more fearsome opponent: logic.
“There are always surprises in football, and when you’re out on the pitch there’s no such thing as a strong team or a weak team,” front man Iajour told FIFA.com in the aftermath of his side’s defeat of the Copa Libertadores champions.
“We proved that against Monterrey, who have won several [CONCACAF] Champions Leagues, and then against the Brazilians, who were big favourites to beat us. Yet despite it all, it’s Raja who are going to play the final. There’s no such thing as logic. Even if you’re the favourite, you have to go out on the pitch and prove it.”
And it is out on the pitch where Iajour has shown that the skills he has displayed throughout his career and which earned him a Morocco call-up and a championship winner’s medal this season have not deserted him.
The forward deservedly picked up the man of the match award against the Brazilians, winning a penalty, driving their defence to distraction with his direct running and scoring a goal, one that took him level with Cesar Delgado as the competition’s top marksman.
“I really hope I can make the goalscoring award mine,” he said without a hint of doubt in his voice. “It’s very much on. I’ve scored twice and still have one game to play, and it would be a tremendous achievement after all our hard work in this competition. I really hope to score in the final”
Playing with freedom
With Bayern Munchen providing the opposition in the showpiece match, the task will not be an easy one. As far as Iajour is concerned, however, it will be no harder than the one they faced against Ronaldinho and Co, who were also firm favourites to beat the Moroccans in the semis.
The departure of M’hamed Fakhir from the dugout and the arrival of Faouzi Benzarti just before the tournament helped the 28-year-old forward put his return of just two goals in 11 league outings behind him, as he explained.
“He’s brought in something new. He’s been able to get the best out of us and give us confidence at the same time,” said the former Sporting Charleroi player. “The previous coach had a pretty defensive mindset, but now there’s a different approach. We always look to attack, no matter what the state of the game is. We’re free to express ourselves up front.”
I really hope I can make the goalscoring award mine. It’s very much on.
Yet there is more to Raja Casablanca’s sudden metamorphosis than a fresh set of tactics. Explaining his side’s three defeats and a draw in the build-up to Morocco 2013, Iajour said: “We’ve never lost as many matches as that but you have to remember that we’d stopped playing our game because our minds had turned to the Club World Cup.
“We were focusing on the competition and nothing else, and it was all too much. That was the reason why our energy levels and motivation went down in the league.”
A side rejuvenated
That winless run saw Raja drop down to ninth in the league, eight points adrift of the leaders, though they do have two games in hand. On the bright side, their rocky league form has been a motivating factor in their Club World Cup.
“It’s like losing one thing to gain another,” said Iajour, the only Raja forward to start every game so far at the tournament. “All that focus has worked against us in the league but it’s helped us achieve success here. With this good run behind us, we’re sure to come back strong in the championship.”
Their morale will be even higher should they spring a surprise and beat the Bavarians in the final. While that may seem a tall order, they have a nation of 32 million right behind them and willing them to succeed.
“We are all aware of the hopes people have in the team thanks to our performances in the Club World Cup. You only have to look at the celebrations in the streets to see how much it means to them, ” added Iajour, who is hoping those scenes of jubilation will be repeated one more time before the competition ends. “Our dream started when we qualified for the tournament and it’s continued all the way to the final. It would be a shame if that dream were cut short now."