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Ounahi and Amrabat: The Morocco midfielders who have caught the eye of Luis Enrique, Mourinho and Europe's top clubs

12:00 EAT 14/12/2022
Ounahi Amrabat Morocco 2022 World Cup GFX
Azzedine Ounahi has been one of the breakout stars of the 2022 World Cup, while team-mate Sofyan Amrabat is being linked with the likes of Liverpool

There are surprise packages and then there is Morocco, who, on Wednesday, will face defending champions France in the semi-finals of the World Cup.

Nobody saw this coming. No African side had ever made it beyond the quarter-finals before and few expected Morocco to even get out of a group containing Croatia and Belgium.

This is a talented and driven group of players, led by an African Champions League-winning coach, but only Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech would have been considered household names before the tournament began.

Indeed, even after Morocco had sensationally upset Spain in the last 16, beaten coach Luis Enrique couldn't even think of Azzedine Ounahi's name. All he knew was that "the No.8" had been "impressive". And he had been. Again.

You can be sure that everyone knows who Ounahi is now. He's been one of the World Cup's breakout stars.

The 22-year-old plays for the worst team in Ligue 1, Angers, who have amassed just eight points from 15 outings this season. But he won't be there much longer. Not after his dynamic displays in Qatar.

As he's acknowledged himself, he started the tournament somewhat slowly. He was a little nervous, which is hardly surprising given he only made his international debut in January.

However, by the time Morocco faced Canada in their final fixture in Group F, Ounahi had settled and played a pivotal role in the 2-1 win that saw his team progress to the last 16 in top spot.

He's since gone to a whole other level. After catching Luis Enrique's eye against Spain, the midfielder drew praise from Roma coach Jose Mourinho for his "absolutely incredible" performance in the 1-0 win over Portugal in the last eight.

It was high praise, but fully deserved, with Ounahi showcasing all of his qualities against the Selecao.

He may be slim but he's also strong, while he is outrageously comfortable on the ball, with his dribbling skills particularly impressive. "He’s an important part of the team," Morocco defender Nayef Aguerd said. "He's one of our finest technical players, and we’re very happy with his contribution."

On Monday, he appeared on the front page of Mundo Deportivo, who reported that Barcelona were suddenly interested in signing Ounahi. Whether that is true or not, he is set to be inundated with offers in January.

Just like fellow midfielder Sofyan Amrabat. Indeed, his agent, Mohammed Sinouh, has already revealed that he has been inundated by calls from interested clubs, with Liverpool among those said to be considering making a move for the Fiorentina man.

It's certainly easy to understand why Jurgen Klopp would be a fan. Amrabat has been the best defensive midfielder in Qatar, a key reason why Morocco have conceded just one goal to date.

Indeed, no player has won the ball back more than Amrabat (41), and it's not just that he regains possession, he retains it well too. Time and time again against Portugal, he broke up attacks in his own third and then bounded forward, breezing past opponents, before releasing team-mates into space.

His performance against Spain was arguably even more heroic, though. Amrabat had been up until 3am on the day of the game, working with the team physio in a desperate bid to be fit to feature. Even at that, he had to take a pain-killing injection beforehand.

And yet he still went out and bossed a Spanish midfield containing Sergio Busquets, Gavi and Pedri.

"I am very emotional,” he admitted afterwards. “There was a question mark over whether I could play this game. But I can't abandon the guys and my country."

It is this combination of skill and spirit which makes Morocco such a dangerous opponent for France.

On paper, it’s a mismatch but, as Raphael Varane admitted, they have no intention of making the same mistake as Belgium, Spain and Portugal before them. “We have enough experience to avoid falling into this trap,” he said. “They’ve reached this stage for a reason.

“They’re writing Moroccan football history, they have a collective force with performances that given them a lot of confidence.”

Indeed, despite their injury issues, Morocco have been able to keep 11 lions on the field for every single minute of every single game so far, bar the final few seconds after Walid Cheddira's red card against Portugal.

“We deserve this, 1000 percent,” Amrabat said of their semi-final appearance. “How we fight, how we play, with our heart for our country for the people – it’s unbelievable.

“We have injuries, three defenders came in [against Portugal] and how they defend, big respect. Respect everyone - the coach, the team, the staff."

They have certainly earned the respect of every single football fan across the world. And the likes of Amrabat and Ounahi have probably also earned themselves big-money moves too.