For his first competitive match in charge of Morocco against Algeria on 27 March, Eric Gerets has rung the changes. Making full use of the carte blanche handed him by the Moroccan FA, the Belgian has left such seasoned performers as Abdelhamid El Kaoutari and Karim Aït-Fana back in France and chosen to do without Mounir El Hamdaoui.
Gerets' plans include the blooding of an exciting new generation of players, even though the trip to Annaba could be crucial in determining whether his charges qualify for the 2012 CAF African Cup of Nations. The former Marseille coach is clearly unafraid to introduce a number of fresh faces to the competitive stage.
Indeed, Montpellier frontman Younes Belhanda only made his Moroccan debut in November 2010, one month after making a “choice of the heart” to play for his motherland instead of France. His impact was immediate according to the Lion de Rekem. "You’d have thought he’d been playing international football for years", said Gerets.
Belhanda has indeed come a long way fast since first catching the eye for Montpellier’s youth team in the French Gambardella Cup final win over against Nantes in 2009. “His desire to get on the ball combined with excellent technique means he can play through the middle or on the wings. He reminds me of Robert Pires," said his coach at the time, Rene Girard. Such is the speed of his progress since, Gerets now feels he can build a team around him.
Midfield new boys
It was Belhanda’s performance in an unfamiliar deeper-lying role against Niger in February that convinced Gerets he has the midfield lynchpin he needs. The 21-year-old’s vision, technique and intelligent decision-making means his manager is able to push Houssine Kharja forward into his favourite attacking-midfield position, leaving Belhanda and Adil Hermach to sweep up and direct operations behind.
Kharja is currently making waves for Inter Milan, having signed for I Nerazzurri in January from Genoa. Previously restricted to a more defensive role for his country, “because we have such good attacking players”, he is clearly delighted at the news. "Of course I love having freedom to move around the midfield to find an opening,” said Kharja.
The Niger match was also revelatory in that it underlined the importance of Mbark Boussoufa to Gerets’ new Morocco. A former top scorer in the Belgian top flight with Anderlecht, Boussoufa had previously disappointed in his national colours. This time, however, and clearly revelling in the support given by his Belgian mentor, the ex-Chelsea youth player bagged a brace in a 3-0 win. Recently recruited by Russian Premier League outfit FC Anzhi Makhachkala, Boussoufa will be joined by the revelation of this year’s English Championship campaign, Adel Taarabt.
The Queen’s Park Rangers playmaker has been unstoppable in the second tier of English football this season. The former RC Lens man was recently voted Football League Player of the Year on the back of 15 goals, 15 assists and a host of man-of-the-match performances. Still only 21, Taarabt showed against Niger that he has matured into a dangerous performer on the international stage – providing he can keep his natural instinct to dribble under control. As his QPR coach Neil Warnock says: "He can win you any match against anyone in any league, but he can make you lose too, if you don’t know how to use him properly.”
The Atlas Zidane
Youssef El-Arabi is another exciting new recruit to the Moroccan cause. A former France U-21 futsal international, El-Arabi was initially let go by Caen but worked his way back into their plans after three years in the reserves. Fourteen strikes in France’s Ligue 1 are testimony to the threat now provided by the striker who decided to play for the Lions des Atlas because, in his own words, “I liked the look of the new set-up and the new coach.”
El-Arabi is currently reaping the rewards of his futsal background: "Youssef doesn’t panic in front of goal. He is instinctive in the way you need to be in futsal when the defender is on you in an instant,” analyses Henri Emile, the respected technical coordinator of the France team. “He has that sense of space which reminds me of Zinedine Zidane, and that Brazilian way of trapping the ball with the bottom of his boot and using a body swerve so effectively," adds Emile.
Other prodigious talents such as 21-year-old Standard Liege forward Mehdi Carcela and 22-year-old Herenveen winger Oussama Assaidi have also made the step up to a Moroccan side that is bursting with potential. Whether Gerets manages to make a competitive final product out of such promising raw material remains to be seen, but Algeria, for one, are about to find out.