Al Kaabi awaits the defense of Maccabi Tel Aviv

Olympiakos, who will meet Maccabi Tel Aviv this Thursday in Piraeus, comes to the games against the Yellows in their best period of the season. Since the appointment of Jose Luis Mandiliver as the team’s coach, the Greeks have run for seven consecutive victories, and the one who has become the team’s main operational contractor is Ayoub El Kaabi, the 30-year-old Moroccan striker who has recorded an amazing record of 10 goals since the Spaniard was dropped to the lines.

The story of Al Kaabi is fascinating. Until the age of 21 he was even a semi-professional footballer, in the position of left defender, who in his free hours during the day when he was not training worked as a carpenter trying to help his family make a decent living. A total of nine years ago, he signed his first career professional contract with Racing Casablanca from the second division in Morocco and that’s where the turning point happened. He was shifted from the left defender position to the left wing player position, started scoring goals and from there moved to the central striker position.

It ended with a debut season of 25 goals and a sale to Barkan for €1.8 million. He also made it to the Moroccan national team for the first time and finished his first season in the top league in Morocco with 21 goals in all competitions. In those years, the teams in China were looking for goalkeepers and purchased strikers from every possible league and in exchange for six million euros he was sold to Habay. There, too, he lasted only one year, although he signed for three, scored five goals and was loaned out. By the way, he met Eran Zahavi and Guangzhou RP twice, but did not find the back of the net in any of the games against the Israeli striker, from whom he scored two.

Ayoub Al Kaabi celebrates in front of his audience (Reuters)Ayoub Al Kaabi celebrates in front of his audience (Reuters)

The time in China did not do El Kaabi any good and he got the opportunity to return to Morocco, to the Widad team, where he recorded two excellent seasons that totaled 35 goals and eight assists in 57 appearances. The loan period ended and the contract also ended again and in 2021 he reached European football for the first time and signed on a free transfer in the Turkish Hatyaspor. 18 goals and two assists in the Turkish league was enough for him on the way to the next stop, again for free and on a contract for one season, this time at Al-Saad in Qatar.

The previous season there he finished with 14 goals and the big contract was not extended for another season. Al Kaabi decided that now, at the age of 30, he wants to return to play in European football, earn well, but also give himself a chance to reach bigger teams on the continent. It is said that the fact that he was not told by the coach of the Moroccan national team to the World Cup in Qatar was the decisive moment that made him realize that he had to play in Europe if he wanted to compete at the highest levels, represent his national team and play in UEFA factories, and thus the possibility of coming to Greece was born.

The architect of the transition was his Moroccan friend and one of the greatest strikers in the history of Olympiakos, Youssef El Arabi, who is still in the team today, but rarely plays and mainly comes up as a substitute. El Kaabi moved again on a free transfer and this time on a contract for only one season. What has worked so well for him so far in his career, he continued. Short, fat, hit-and-run contracts if you will.

Ayoub Al Kaabi (Reuters)Ayoub Al Kaabi (Reuters)

His statistics are amazing, especially in recent times. Many clubs already want him due to his ability and the fact that he is a free agent who can conduct negotiations with whomever he wants without a doubt from a sleeping apartment with the managers of the Greek club. Because with all due respect, football in Europe or in Morocco and Qatar is not the same football. Now they want to increase his contract and sign him for the long term, but it will be difficult,” they say in Greece.

El Kaabi arrived in the summer after Cedric Becambo, the veteran Cameroonian striker, finished a great season, but Olympiakos was unable to keep him and he moved to Saudi Arabia for a match that lasted a few days, from there to Galatasaray and in the last window to the Spanish Betis. Olympiakos wanted to keep him and was unable to, the friend Al Arabi recommended and Al Kaabi landed in Piraeus.

The beginning was not good. Al Kaabi scored a few goals, but was mostly mentioned for the fact that he missed a few sure goals that led to many doubting whether he could really be the team’s leading striker. The original plan was that he would be El Arabi’s replacement and come off the bench so that it didn’t excite too many people that he wasn’t good.

Ayoub Al Kaabi with his back (Reuters)Ayoub Al Kaabi with his back (Reuters)

This is not a complete striker. He is a one-touch striker, a pure finisher. Anything else you probably won’t get from it. He doesn’t help in the build-up, he’s not good with the ball in his feet, he doesn’t dribble and he doesn’t try to either, but when it comes to positioning and being where you need to be to push the ball into the net – he does that amazingly. He takes every opportunity that is arranged for him, but he does not succeed in creating for himself, so the key for Maccabi Tel Aviv and its defense will be to stop his teammates and prevent them from creating situations for him.

In Greece analysts: “The word about him is efficiency. He is the most efficient striker there is. He won’t dribble, won’t pass players, but give him a ball in the box and he will find the way to the net. He is not the fastest, but his positioning is excellent. Do you want us to compare him to someone? So he is Olympiakos’ answer to Eran Zahavi.”

So what happened and what changed, and how did El Kaabi become a striker who in October lost his place in the team and in January a striker was placed to play in his place, the safest stock of Olympiakos and the king of her gates? “The arrival of Mandiliber revived him,” they say in Piraeus. “Until a few weeks ago, it was clear that Olympiakos needed to bring a striker in January and they did it when they brought Fernando Navarro from Porto, but since the African Championship and the appointment of Mandiliber, something has changed. It’s as if another player has returned.”

Jose Luis Mandiliber (Reuters)Jose Luis Mandiliber (Reuters)

How much does it boil? Last Sunday, in front of the eyes of Robbie Keane who was present at the game, Al Kaabi set several records. His two goals against Volos took him to 15 of the season in the Greek league and thus became the Moroccan with the highest number of goals this season along with Abdelazik Hamdala of Ittihad. The 30-year-old striker has found the back of the net 10 times in Mandiliver’s seven games in charge and 22 times since the start of the season in all competitions.

The only one with a better goal record than El Kaabi in the history of Olympiakos is Giorgos Sideris who scored 17 times in 10 consecutive games. Another remarkable fact is that he left behind his Moroccan team-mate, Youssef A-Nasiri, a former Mandiliver trainee, who also scored a brace last weekend, but has only nine goals since the start of the season.

“Al Kaabi is boiling, this is mainly proof that Olympiakos is good now,” say the Greek journalists. “He is not a striker who will take the ball, run 20 meters and kick to the connections from afar. He depends very much on what the team does for him and if they do enough for him, then the goals come. His teammates work well for him, this is the biggest story in terms of Al Kaabi’s promotion. He It’s only good when everyone is good. There are games where you won’t even feel that he’s on the field for 90 minutes, but then you look at the scoreboard, and he has a hat trick or a double.”

Alumifiakos players celebrate with Ayoub El Kaabi (Reuters)Alumifiakos players celebrate with Ayoub El Kaabi (Reuters)

This also happened in front of Cain’s eyes. A game without too many touches, but two goals against Volos and Olympiakos, which until the arrival of Mandiliber was nine points away from the top, and is now already in third place and only three points away from first place. Just before the Greek playoffs begin, the first game against Maccabi Tel Aviv awaits. The Greeks are not at all sure that Al Kaabi will start, but are convinced that in any situation he will come off the bench to decide the game. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s defense will have to be very ready for him, and not only that.

Mandiliber’s squad is full of big players and big names, but the Greek journalists also warn: “Mandiliber won because El Kaabi was there for him. Going to a game against Maccabi Tel Aviv without him could be a very serious mistake, so it’s hard to see him not playing against Maccabi, even though the coach stated That the league is supposedly more important to him.” We’ll wait and see.

Cain: Together won the game for us

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