World Cup Ones to Watch: Mehdi Benatia, Morocco
Welcome back to the World Cup, Morocco. For the first time in 20 years, this football-mad nation has qualified for football's showpiece tournament.
Riding the ensuing wave of optimism, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation has since bid to host the 2026 event – although the bigwigs at the RMFF must worry that their team's stay in Russia will be short-lived. Morocco had the misfortune of drawing both the European champions, Portugal, and fellow Iberians Spain – a side among the pre-tournament favourites. Closing out the group are Iran – a side that breezed through Asian qualifying to book an early place in Russia, behind only the hosts and Brazil. Group B will be devilishly tough to get out of.
Moroccans have waited a long time to return to the World Cup stage, but Mehdi Benatia is a man who's used to waiting. After breaking through with Roma during the 2013/14 season Benatia was poached by Bavarian giants Bayern Munich, where he spent the best part of two seasons twiddling his thumbs on the substitute's bench. Benatia bided his time. The Moroccan went to Turin on loan during the 2016/17 season, but again found his opportunities limited behind the indomitable Juve backline of Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini. The former's shock transfer to Milan in the summer of 2017 was the opportunity Benatia was looking for, however. Juventus made his move permanent, before the combination of Andrea Barzagli's creaking bones and Max Allegri's switch to a back four offered the Moroccan a shot at the first team. He hasn't looked back since.
Benatia has had an excellent season at the heart of the Juventus defence, helping the Bianconeri maintain the league's most parsimonious rearguard as they overcame a resurgent Napoli to defend the Serie A title. He'll need to bring that form to the World Cup if Morocco are to have any chance of progressing beyond Group B, but as one of Italy's most consistent performers, the elegant, athletic defender won't be phased by the prospect of leading his country from the back.
If his colleagues further forward are unlikely to provide the firepower necessary to drag Morocco past either of Spain or Portugal, watching Benatia test his mettle against Ronaldo, Diego Costa and others will be fascinating at least.
The dream: Three dominant performances at the back help Morocco progress to the knockout rounds for the first time in their history.
The nightmare: Benatia becomes a bystander as the Iberian favourites run riot.