Cairo - Hakim Ziyech dazzled as Ajax embarked on an unforgettable European
run while scooping a league and cup double, but the Morocco star has yet
to cast his magic over the Africa Cup of Nations ahead of Friday's
last-16 tie with Benin.
His main contribution to a flawless group campaign in Egypt was a
vicious free-kick that prompted Namibia defender Itamunua Keimuine to
divert into his own net and earned Morocco a 1-0 victory in their
While Herve Renard's side triumphed in all three group games, it was
primarily the result of an airtight defence and not a sputtering attack,
with Youssef En-Nesyri's fine goal against Ivory Coast a rare highlight
for the Atlas Lions going forward.
Billed as one to watch, Ziyech, 26, found the going tough against
compact Namibian and South African backlines, while the searing Cairo
heat ensured an anticipated showdown with the Ivorians failed to ignite.
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, banned for Senegal's first game, have
scored twice already in Egypt, putting Ziyech's reduced output in the
spotlight. Against Benin he will have another chance to show he can lead
Morocco, on the hunt for a first title since 1976, deep into the
'Next level' at Ajax
"This year he took it
to the next level, so we are asking him to move it up a notch at
international level and we will all be with him so he can take us as far
as possible," said Renard, who is attempting to win the title with a
third different country.
Dijon defender Fouad Chafik, who was overlooked for Morocco's Cup of
Nations squad, has been equally impressed by the improvement in Ziyech's
"When he came in 2015 we saw his technical ability, and in terms of
his shot, he was really a cut above. He's progressed since then," Chafik
At Ajax, Ziyech was a chief protagonist in a Champions League
adventure that saw the Dutch giants topple both holders Real Madrid and
Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus before an agonising last-gasp defeat to
Tottenham on away goals in the semi-finals.
Ziyech scored in both legs of the Real upset, as Ajax trounced the
13-time champions 4-1 in Madrid, and his influential displays have
marked him out as a prized asset in this summer's transfer market.
"He's a technical leader, the player we must take advantage of and who must help the others," said Renard.
"He's the one who at any moment in a match is capable of providing the spark that makes the difference."
The fates of Ziyech and
Renard are inextricably linked, with one striving to prove he is the
head of the pack as the other bids for a record-equalling third title as
coach, ahead of a possible departure.
Yet they initially struggled to see eye to eye. Appointed coach in
February 2016, Frenchman Renard began his tenure at odds with the former
Dutch youth international.
Ziyech was frozen out of the national team between January and June
of 2017, his absence coinciding with the last Cup of Nations where
Morocco lost narrowly to Egypt in the quarter-finals.
"I didn't communicate enough with him. We left (with the Moroccan FA
president) for Amsterdam and there after three minutes, when we started
the conversation, everything was resolved," Renard recounted to RMC
Sport in April.
"He wanted to come back because he's very attached to his national
team. I needed him and I recognised my mistakes. I'm 99%
responsible for this mistake."
Ziyech has rewarded Renard's renewed confidence with nine goals in 19
matches, including a brace against Zambia in the final warm-up match,
but after a quiet 2018 World Cup questions still linger as to whether he
can come good when it counts most.
"He's like the rest of the team, he has to get stronger," Renard said
after the Namibia game. Will he finally deliver against Benin?