Ziyech fails to live up to hype after glaring Morocco miss
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Hakim Ziyech had the perfect chance to give Morocco an early lead against Iran in their opening World Cup match on Friday when the ball rolled to him near the penalty spot.
Ziyech missed the ball, which went under his foot, and swiping at thin air was the not the best way for Ziyech to live up to his pre-tournament billing as one of the players to watch.
It proved to be a costly miss, too. Iran stunned the Atlas Lions, which lost 1-0 on an own-goal in injury time.
Ziyech, a highly-rated attacking midfielder with Dutch club Ajax, has been linked to moves to Serie A side Roma and Premier League Liverpool. On the eve of Friday's match, the 25-year-old was even urged by Morocco coach Herve Renard to make a dream move come true.
But after the game, without naming Ziyech directly, Renard was lamenting missed chances.
"The first 20 minutes were largely in our favor," Renard said. "That's when we should have made the difference, against a side which had hardly got out of its own half (at that point)."
It was a frustrating match for Ziyech, whose late shot was saved by Iran goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand. And it was a frustrating evening for Renard, who made choices that ultimately backfired.
Renard made a surprise choice by selecting Ayoub El Kaabi ahead of the more experienced Khalid Boutaib as his lone central striker.
El Kaabi was the top scorer for Morocco when it won the African Nations Championship in February, a lower-tier international competition reserved for players in domestic African leagues, and he set a new record with nine goals.
After Ziyech's miss, El Kaabi also came close when his shot flew past the left post. Later in the first half, El Kaabi made a clever run to drift behind the Iran defense into the area, but could not quite get his head onto a cross from the left flank.
With a little less than 15 minutes left, Boutaib probably thought he was going to get a chance to make a name for himself when Renard substituted El Kaabi. Instead, Renard brought Aziz Bouhaddouz on up front.
Bouhaddouz did prove decisive, but in the wrong way.
He scored an own goal in the fifth minute of injury time, heading Iran's last-gasp free kick powerfully past his goalkeeper at the front post.
Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire