Football: Morocco made in new mould by Michel

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The Independent Online
ANYONE OUTSIDE north Africa or Scandinavia might think there is only one World Cup match today, but while Brazil versus Scotland is the main event Norway's match with Morocco is arguably the more vital game.

With Brazil favourites to win Group A, the real contest is for second place and the meeting in Montpellier will reveal immediately whether Morocco have a chance of upsetting the odds.

Norway, unbeaten at international level since January 1997, have had an enviable build-up, with impressive recent victories over Denmark, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

That run has enabled the coach, Egil Olsen, to name his starting line- up early last night and, with a fully-fit squad, confidence in the camp is high. Olsen's only problem seems to be keeping Norwegian optimism in check. "We're not as good as our results suggest," he said. "The results have been better than some of the performances and we know that we are not the best side in the world."

Brazil earned that title four years ago but came unstuck against Norway in Oslo last year, losing 4-2.

Olsen gives his team a "20 per cent chance" of repeating that victory in the final group match but he hopes to have secured second place by then, with wins over Scotland and Morocco.

The Chelsea forward Tore Andre Flo, who scored twice against Brazil, will lead the Norwegian attack and his strength in the air will pose a formidable threat to Morocco.

The Morocco coach, Henri Michel, had his squad playing "head only" football during training this week but insisted it was not a special preparation for Norway's aerial menace. In fact, in their captain Nourreddine Naybet, Morocco have a gifted centre-back more than capable of competing with the gangling Flo. He has recovered from a twisted ankle and will play, as will Moustafa Hadji, Morocco's midfield fulcrum. Hadji has a broken toe but insisted he will play through the pain "to bring glory to Morocco".

There was little of that on display four years ago when Morocco lost all three first-round games. However, Michel, who led France to the semifinals in 1986, has revolutionised the team, adding what he described as "British- style discipline" to the abundant talent.

The result is a side that is defensively sound with the ability to break with skill and speed.

Michel well knows that the first match will be vital. "We need a result of some sort," he said. "A win would be ideal but a draw would keep us in the hunt for second place."