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 opening match.
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 tournament.
“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 game.
“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 told AFP.
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 semifinals.
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 quarterfinals.
“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 percent 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.