The Moroccan championship gets started this weekend, and football fans across the country will be hoping the league can help them forget the national team's thus-far unconvincing qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Once again, the favourites for the title look to be FAR Rabat, who took the crown last term and will be wary of the challenges emanating from Casablanca rivals Raja and Wydad. Further down the peckig order, OC Khourigba and IZ Khemisset appear to have what it takes to create a few upsets, while promoted sides AS Sale and SCC Mohammedia are targeting survival. FIFA.com previews the action from this year's Botola (‘championship' in Arabic).
FAR Rabat went down in history last term as the most titled side in Moroccan football. Winning their 12th crown, the Armed Forces outfit moved ahead of Wydad Casablanca, who will be hoping to play their way back into the history books this season. Wydad will have their work cut out, however, as Mhamed Fakhir's men are targeting a 13th title, with their coach hungry for honours in his second spell at the club following stints with the national side and Moghreb Tetouan. His team is entirely made up of Moroccan players, including 38-year-old veteran Houcine Ouchela, back with the team so close to his heart two years after departing. Rabat are hot favourites to finish top once again but will have to overcome fatigue concerns as their players get to grips with the CAF Champions League.
The chasing pack
Most observers would identify the two Casablanca giants as Rabat's major competitors, following two seasons of disappointment for their supporters. Raja last tasted championship success in 2004 and will be hoping for great things from Portuguese coach Jose Romao, who first made a name for himself at Wydad, and from a young generation of players including Mohamed Oulhaj, Abdes Ouhaki, Mouhssine Moutouali and Mohammed Bourkadi. For their part, Wydad have entrusted coaching duties to experienced trainer Baddou Zaki, back at the helm for the Red and Whites for the third time. Famous for his rigour, the former goalkeeper and Atlas Lions coach will attempt to restore order in a side that finished seventh last time out, and he will look to experienced players Hicham Louissi, Faouzi El Brazi and Mustapha Bidodane to help him achieve his goals.
OC Khouribga were originally created by French inhabitants and the club remained faithful to its roots this summer by bringing a French coach on board. Richard Tardy takes over from Belgian boss Henri Depireux and has his sights set on a second title for Les Phosphatiers after their first coronation in 2007. That would be something of an upset, something IZ Khemisset are also hoping to pull off after their surprise second-place finish last term. Les Zemmouris intend to finish one spot higher this term, although their title dreams could well be hindered by their first ever Champions League bid.
Aside from picking up Ouchela, who joined from Tetouan along with coach Fakhir, FAR made headlines by recruiting defender Abdessamad Chahiri from El Jadida this summer. The Green Devils also signed Hassania Agadir duo Omar Nadji and Youssef Agnaou, while Wydad turned to former Guingamp prospect Farid Talhaoui. Compared to a certain Zinedine Zidane during his early days in Brittany, the midfielder comes on board with undoubted technical qualities, not to mention the experience he amassed in France and for the national side during the 2004 Olympic tournament. Also of note was Maghreb Fez's signing of former Lens player Bouabid Bouden, who boasts seven appearances for the national side.
Players to watch
Abderazzak Lemnasfi celebrated his first season at FAR by topping the Moroccan scoring charts last term, and the striker unsurprisingly won himself a place in the hearts of the club's supporters, who also imagine their idol fulfilling a role for the national side. He, along with young defender Youssef Tourabi, will be worth paying close attention to this year, especially as the latter was one of the only positives to come out of the 2007/08 campaign for WAC. Can he realise that promise when the new season gets underway?
Have Your Say
Do you think FAR Rabat will successfully defend their title or will one of the Casablanca giants pip them to the post? Perhaps you think an outsider has a chance of tasting championship glory this term. What are your predictions as the title hopefuls get ready to mount their challenge?