Moroccan midfielder Sofyan Amrabat has been a rock, but can he rein in France’s Mbappe and Griezmann?

If you find yourself to be a player at this World Cup and have somehow innocently meandered across to the Moroccan midfield thinking space is a luxury you could afford – Sofyan Amrabat is about to take the ball away from you.

It’ll be over before you even realise it. If you chase him to get the ball back, chances are you’re not catching him. And in case you do, he’ll do that thing great midfielders do when they’re in trouble. He’ll drop his shoulders and turn in limited space, or crank up a sudden burst of acceleration, or find the one player in the park that isn’t being guarded. He’ll find a way – any way.

At the 2018 World Cup, this description matched one player – Luka Modric.

If statistics have to be invoked, the magic number is 56. Those were the number of ball recoveries that Modric made four years back on his way to the final. Seven of the top ten players in ball recoveries at the Russian edition were all Croatians. At this World Cup, Amrabat leads that tally with 41 ball recoveries in 480 minutes of lung bursting, physically murderous football that’s sore to the eyes of all except if you happen to hail from Morocco.

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Morocco’s Sofyan Amrabat shakes hands with Portugal’s Joao Cancelo after the match. (Reuters)

If defensive stinginess is the key to the country’s deep run in this edition of the World Cup, the architect of this goal drought is Amrabat. He sits in front of Morocco’s defensive line but behind the first midfield wave that coach Walid Regragui has to offer.

An opposition player that somehow manages to evade Selim Amallah and Azzedine Ounahi clatters into the wall that is Amrabat. And then there is the small matter of the Moroccan defensive midfielder being great on the ball. Against Spain, the 26-year-old routinely found himself winning the ball just outside the box, but almost instantaneously being surrounded by Marco Asensio, Dani Olmo and Pedri. He had enough ability on the ball to navigate himself out of the noose that is a high press and was successful in making a pass forward. In the Serie A, for Fiorentina, Amrabat ranks in the 97th percentile for progressive passes.

At the World Cup, he combines three qualities that exemplify Moroccan success. An ability to be a nuisance for opposition players in winning the ball back, then having the ability to shield that ball and make sure it makes way to forward players and lastly the sheer energy and stamina blast that he injects into the team.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Morocco’s Sofyan Amrabat reacts. (Reuters)

In their first match against Croatia, he ran a shade under 11 kilometres and then followed it up with two more 11km performances against Belgium and Canada.

But it was the match against Spain where Amrabat really put in the miles. And this was when he was already an injury concern for Morocco and almost didn’t make it to the match. He ran for a mammoth 14.66 kms in that historic win, despite being medically examined till 3 AM in the night.

“I am very emotional. It was a question whether I could play this game. Last night I stayed up until 3am with the physio, an injection before the game too. I can’t abandon the guys and my country,” said Amrabat after the game.

Born in the North Holland in the village of Huizen, he has an older brother who had already paved the way for his footballing career to take off. Nordin Amrabat is currently a winger for AEK Athens who played at Galatasaray and Watford. Younger Amrabat though was picked up by Utrecht’s youth system and ended up playing at the Dutch club for three years. Then a spell with Feyenoord, followed by a league title with Club Brugge and loan spell with Hellas Verona landed him at his current club, Fiorentina.

Morocco’s Sofyan Amrabat tackles Portugal’s Otavio during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar. (AP)

Both brothers were a part of the Netherlands youth setup at one point. But both chose to take on Moroccan colours, much like so many other players from this team have. Sofyan was a part of the Dutch U15 but for the 2013 U-17 World Cup, he ended up representing Morocco, an association that has seen him win 44 caps for his country since his debut in 2017.

Now Morocco goes up against France at the World Cup. The best defensive team of this edition comes up against its most potent threat. Amrabat likes to drift on to the right to help out the magically quick duo of Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech. Against France, this casual drifting onto the lane puts him on a very direct collision course against none other than Kylian Mbappe.

And when Mbappe is not a threat, then France’s true renaissance man in Antoine Griezmann is. Both of Les Blues’ assists against England came from Griezmann and the lack of position that has hampered his club career, has been transformed into a strength by Didier Deschamps. It lends to a roaming midfielder, no longer expected to fill the burden of goals but rather to float between the lines, to probe and to create.

It is Amrabat’s next great test. But with the Spanish midfield in his pocket and Cristiano Ronaldo weeping in his rear-view mirror, there is no reason to believe that one of the best finds of this World Cup won’t rise to the occasion, even if it’s no less than the World Champions at their doorstep.

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