Nayef Aguerd can help Morocco forget Medhi Benatia

Medhi Benatia of Morocco Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

Medhi Benatia's international future appears more uncertain than ever before after the defender was overlooked from Herve Renard's latest Morocco squad.

The Atlas Lions host Malawi in their second Africa Cup of Nations qualifier on September having fallen to a 1-0 defeat in Cameroon in their opener in June 2017.

By and large, Renard has largely kept faith with the squad that won Morocco many plaudits at the World Cup, even though they were eliminated after two matches.

They largely bossed their opener against Iran before conceding late, and then were left to rue controversial refereeing decisions as they took a point from their last two group games against reigning European champions Portugal and 2010 world champions Spain.

Benatia started both of Morocco's first two matches, but was dropped for their clash with La Roja after publicly criticising one of Renard's assistants - and Atlas Lions legend - Mustapha Hadji.

The defender had previously halted his international contribution in light of the 2017 AFCON - citing a desire to focus on his club career- but his omission on this occasion appears to have been entirely the decision of Renard.

It's not the first time the French coach has made a major call in shaking up an established defensive unit.

One of the most under-rated - yet perhaps most decisive - calls he made during his successful stints with the Ivory Coast and Zambia, was his decision to break up the Elephants' Sol Bamba-Kolo Toure defensive partnership and turn to untried youngsters Eric Bailly and Wilfried Kanon.

Less than six months later, the Ivorians were African champions.

On this occasion, however, Renard doesn't appear to have acted due to a tactical necessity to improve his defensive unit; Benatia remains Morocco's best defender, if not their best player.

During the World Cup, however, his relationship with the French coach appeared to sour after the former Bayern Munich man broke rank and accused Hadji of "turning his back" on the team.

In light of this bubbling controversy, Renard's decision appears partly punitive and partly a statement designed to reaffirm his loyalty to his staff and warn other players against stepping out of line.

One wonders if he'd have made a similar call if the stakes were higher; Morocco, after all, are unlikely to miss out on the AFCON, and may even end up hosting the tournament, with CAF President Ahmad Ahmad still unconvinced by Cameroon's credentials.

When the competition gets fiercer, however, Renard may need to relent. This is a squad that can still take apart the continent's best sides without Walid Azaro or Sofiane Boufal, both of whom have also been overlooked, but Benatia is harder to replace.

At least, he has been up to now.

The key beneficiary of Benatia's exclusion is Nayef Aguerd, who's enjoying a roller-coaster week after making his debut for Dijon - he scored and received a booking after an early error - and has been handed a call-up to the senior side.

He was one of the stars of the African Nations Championship, outshining Jawad El Yamiq and Badr Banoun during the early stages of the tournament before Jamal Sellami opted to stick with the Raja Casablanca duo.

A move to Major League Soccer was mooted, but he eventually opted for Ligue 1. It was a natural choice for this eloquent Rolls Royce of a defender who offers a physical presence and the technical quality to carry the ball out from the back.

Obviously, at the time of writing, he's no Benatia.

He doesn't boast the elder player's tenacity, presence or experience, but Aguerd is a different kind of centre-back, and with Manuel Da Costa and Romain Saiss providing more of the brawn (assuming Renard reverts to a back three), he can play a key role as Morocco look to control contests.

Still only 22, the defender can surely climb beyond Dijon, and surely represents the future of the Morocco backline.

In an ideal world, perhaps, Aguerd would learn the ropes and grow into international football alongside Benatia, but with the latter's fit of pique in Russia prompting a change of direction, the former FUS Rabat man finds himself with an early opportunity to make a big impression.