MOROCCO improved markedly through the African qualifiers to emerge as the form team from the continent heading to the World Cup but their chances of making an impact in Russia were dealt a heavy blow at December's draw.
The north Africans were paired with reigning European champions Portugal and their predecessors Spain in Group B, and open their campaign with a tough encounter against Iran.
They need to start with victory in St. Petersburg on June 15 to stand any chance of progress and then hope that they might steal some points off the two heavyweights in their next two group games.
Morocco will pose a tough challenge but might not have the depth to achieve their ambition of progressing beyond the first round.
Their squad draws heavily from the diasporas in Europe and benefits greatly from players born or brought up in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain.
The Dutch flair of Mbark Boussoufa, Hakim Ziyech and Nordin Amrabat pairs well with the likes of French-born Younes Belhanda and Mehdi Benatia.
The 'Atlas Lions' have also seen Spanish-born Achraf Hakimi make a La Liga debut for Real Madrid this season.
But Morocco's weaknesses in goal and at centre forward, where constant switches in selection reflect the ongoing search for a solution, pose a serious problem.
Admittedly, they came through the qualifying campaign without conceding a goal in the group phase and eliminated the Ivory Coast, who had been to the previous three World Cups.
It was particularly sweet for coach Herve Renard, who only two years earlier had led the Ivorians to the 2015 African Nations Cup title.
The flamboyant Frenchman, whose tight-fitting white shirt and bronzed physique make him look something like a beachboy rock star, has kept up his Midas touch on the continent, overcoming initial friction within the Morocco camp to forge a solid unit.
It will be Morocco's fifth appearance at the finals but first since 1998 in France, where they beat Scotland 3-0 but still fell short of a place in the last 16.
They will look back even further to draw inspiration for their current predicament.
At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Morocco also had a seemingly near-impossible task but, against all odds, topped a group also containing England, Poland and Portugal.
FIFA ranking: 42 (till June 7)
Morocco are appearing in their fifth World Cup finals, but their first since the 1998 edition in France. They were only the second African country to play at the finals, picking up a first point at the 1970 tournament in Mexico and then in 1986 becoming the first African country to get past the opening round when they topped a group ahead of England, Poland and Portugal. They were narrowly beaten by West Germany in the last 16.
Coach: Herve Renard
Just over a decade ago, Renard was running an office cleaning business and dreaming of a way into the game. He took up a post as assistant to Claude Le Roy, the much-travelled Frenchman who has handled numerous different African national teams, and has not looked back since. Renard, who turns 50 this year, took Zambia to the 2012 African Nations Cup title and repeated the feat with the Ivory Coast three years later. Regarded as having a firm disciplinary hand but also allowing free-flowing football, Renard's success in Africa has seen him twice offered jobs in Ligue 1 but his tenures at Sochaux and Lille proved brief.
Younes Belhanda: A graduate of Montpellier's prodigious youth system, the crafty midfielder helped the unfashionable club to win their first Ligue 1 title in 2012 and was named France's best footballer at the same time. The success led to a lucrative move to Dynamo Kiev, where he slipped somewhat from view, but he went to Galatasaray on a four-year deal last July and the 28-year-old is again proving his worth.
Mehdi Benatia: French-born centre-back whose career looked stuck in Ligue 2 before he moved to Italy and made a quick impression with Udinese, his fortunes surging as he was signed by Roma, Bayern Munich and then Juventus. The 31-year-old won two Bundesliga titles at Bayern and now two in a row with Juventus.
Karim El Ahmadi: The 33-year-old defensive midfielder is likely to call time on his international career at the end of the World Cup. He captained Feyenoord to their first league title in 18 years last season and at the end of the year was voted best player in the Dutch league.
Morocco beat Serbia and Uzbekistan in warm-up friendlies in March and their home-based national team, made up of players from their local league, won the African Nations Championship which the country hosted in January.
How they qualified
Morocco did not concede a goal in finishing top of Group C in the African preliminaries, four points clear of second-placed Ivory Coast, who had been to the three previous World Cups.
Morocco have been handed a tough draw after being grouped with Portugal, Spain and Iran. They must get their Group B campaign off to a winning start against Iran on June 15 in St Petersburg and then hope for results against the reigning European champions and 2010 World Cup winners.