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Uri Levy

Eyes on Morocco: This week in Middle East football

Morocco's success at CHAN 2018 makes it a sporting nation to watch [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 February, 2018

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Morocco is shooting for the 2026 World Cup following an outstanding performance in the Championship of African Nations.
In the past few months, something has been happening in Morocco.

It started with Wydad Casablanca winning the African Champions League after a heroic final against Egyptian giants al-Ahly. The Moroccan national team qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years - and both landmarks for the nation's football happened within November 2017.

This week, the successful era of Moroccan football stepped up a league with the thumping 4-0 victory of the Moroccan national team against Nigeria in the final of the African Nations Championship - CHAN 2018 - which was hosted by Morocco.

Unlike the African Cup of Nations, the competing national teams at CHAN must be composed of players playing in their domestic leagues. The tournament has taken place every two years since 2009.

Casablanca, Tangier, Aghadir and Marrakesh all provided venues for the 16 national teams, in four groups of four. The Moroccans shined right from the start with victories against Mauritania and Guinea - as their star player, Ayoub el-Kaabi (remember the name), scored in almost every game, finishing with nine goals overall as the tournament's top scorer.

El-Kaabi, who plays for Renaisance Sportive Berkane from the Botola Pro, is a major prospect for the future of Moroccan football.

Due to the fact that the tournament includes only players that play in the domestic African competitions, CHAN offers football scouts a variety of players to watch first-hand, before they make headlines worldwide. 

Nigeria, Sudan and Libya all produced a positive tournament, revealing their local superstars to be Walaa Eldin (Sudan), Anthony Okpotu (Nigeria) and Saleh al-Taher (Libya).

These successful three weeks of the CHAN will benefit Morocco as primary evidence and test in achieving their real goal - hosting the 2026 World Cup.

On Wednesday, Inside World Football reported that FIFA had decided to abandon Morocco's bid, in favour of the North American bid of the USA, Mexico and Canada.

Whether or not the Moroccan bid will get off the ground, as the fifth-largest economy in Africa, the country is aiming to become a leading sporting nation too - and it seems that they are on the right path.

Catch up wth all our football coverage

Mahrez down, Salah up

After Leicester City failed to agree his transfer to Manchester City in the final day of the Transfer Window, Riyad Mahrez hasn't showed up for his team's training.

This weekend, Leicester will play Manchester City, and Mahrez is set to extend his self-imposed strike.

Sources close to the £80million-rated winger claim that the 26-year-old is unlikely to return to training for the remainder of the week as the fall-out from his aborted move to the Etihad Stadium threatens to cast a shadow over Leicester's season.

The French-Algerian star is a major part of Leicester's season and was the Premier League MVP in their historic championship-winning season two years ago.

Although it is unclear whether Mahrez has been given permission to be absent, his frustration is understandable, after handing in two transfer requests this season already.

While Mahrez is struggling with his club, there is one Arab star that really enjoys his life in the Premier League - Mohamed Salah.

Yaya Touré, Sheyi Adebayor, Didier Drogba and from the past weekend - Salah too. All are African players with 20 Premier League goals or more, in one season.

Salah is now the Premier League's greatest ever Egyptian goal-scorer, passing Mido, Amr Zaki, Elmohamady and others. If that's not enough, Salah is Liverpool's fastest player ever to achieve 20 Premier League goals. He's faster than Luis Suárez, Robbie Fowler and other club legends.

The Egyptian simply can't stop scoring and is on his way to become the Premier League's best player this season. On Sunday against Tottenham, Salah saved Liverpool from a home defeat as he scored an outstanding brace at crucial moments in the game.

So far, in 25 Premier League games Salah has scored 21 goals and assisted seven more. Salah has taken the Premier League by storm this season, linking up perfectly with his Reds team-mates and netting goals in all competitions, becoming one of the top players in Europe, and the world.

Another notable Arab footballer in England is Younes Kaboul, the French national team's defender of Moroccan descent. Kaboul is currently recovering from a serious hamstring injury which has left him on Watford's sidelines since September.

In the past week, he witnessed the Hornets' biggest victory in recent years - a 4-1 hammering of champions Chelsea at Vicarage Road. It was Watford's first win over the Blues since 1995. If Kaboul can come back soon, he would be a major boost for his team's current momentum.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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