Already qualified before the game, Morocco took no pains, playing Malawi with the nonchalance of a team more concerned with the future.
Rabat – On a hot and sunny afternoon at the Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre, Malawi, Morocco’s Atlas Lions and Malawi’s Flames neutralized each other, ending 0-0, after what looked more like 90 minutes of pointless and dispirited sprinting after the ball. The game was Morocco’s last qualifier for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN).
For Morocco’s coach Herve Renard and his bunch of youthful lads, today’s game was more an experimentation than a show of character, having already won the most defining games. Facing Malawi, a team Morocco had emphatically defeated in September 2018, it was sensible to expect a slew of changes in the squad.
Renard decided to rest the majority of the team’s starters, giving them time to freshen up before a much sterner challenge against Argentina next week.
And yet, as ever, a Renard-coached Morocco, however bereft of the creativity of players like Belhanda and Hakim Ziyech, still succeeded in showing control and confidence. Renard’s philosophy, as he hammered in interviews and press conferences before and after today’s match, is that every game matters when you dream of the highest accolades.
Playing Malawi, a squad already disqualified from CAN, mattered insofar as it was a time to know where the team stands in the months before the continental scramble for CAN 2019, Renard offered before the game. He maintained the same line of reasoning after the draw.
The way Morocco dominated the game and the composure of this afternoon’s mostly young and second-choice squad, he said, was evidence that he can count on his bench when needed.
Renard exaggerated quite a bit. But based on the performance of the Atlas Lions in Malawi, it was easy to get what he meant. Morocco’s Lions were utterly dominant, and for much of the game it seemed Malawi were the already qualified squad and Morocco were the ones playing for some last-minute exploit to salvage their honor.
Malawi should have seen it coming. In fact they did it see it, and they did prepare accordingly, playing the first minutes of the match like a united legion playing to keep shame at bay. Perhaps being already disqualified seemed less bitter and far less humiliating than a final emphatic defeat on home soil.
But that Malawi saw it does not mean that they stopped it. Try as the southeastern African side did against a youthful and promising Moroccan team, they were unable to keep Morocco from making Malawi’s middle and flanks irrelevant for the entire game.
Even without its usual midfield maestros, it was Morocco that set the rules in the center. In their demeanor and sense of control, there was a striking sense they played thinking not of the present—which already seemed under their control—but rather of the future. This, Renard’s post-match comments suggested, looks like a squad that has every reason to fancy themselves the next African champions.
But for all the dominance, Morocco was wasteful, misdirecting final passes and finding difficulty getting around Malawi’s compact-looking defensive wall. For 20 minutes, the game ran like an exercise in purposelessness.
Morocco attacked relentlessly, as though they still needed a victory here to make a statement. But the attacks lacked quality and depth, with the only adrenaline-eliciting moments coming towards the end of the first half, when Charles Swini, Malawi’s goalkeeper, deftly intervened to prevent a dangerous-looking cross from causing any more danger.
The second half, though a bit more exciting, was an extension of the purposeless sprints and crosses that characterized the first half. It would be untrue to call the game sleepy, but calling it exciting would also be quite insulting.
Malawi, playing at home for pride but fearing that a more adventurous play would have left them more wounded in their pride than they had been prior to the game, mostly parked the bus and played with the intermittent bursts of a side feigning inspiration.
It was clear, as early as the 75th minute, who the victors would be: No one.
Missing its creative geniuses, Morocco’s growing technical machine needed some more oil to score one goal out of the many opportunities it got this afternoon. Lacking fluidity in the most crucial instances, Morocco’s Lions raised their paws more than they roared, causing no panic in Malawi’s defense.
But Malawi also deserves some credit.
Sensing that the Morocco that thumped them 3-0 in their first match last year was different than the strong but amputee squad they were now up against, the Flames realized that they could cause some damage if they took it upon themselves to try some adventure, go forward, and actually play football.
The game then picked up in excitement and last-minute dramas, but the clock already showed 80 minutes, and there was a sense that this would be it for the afternoon. In those promising last 10 minutes, Rachid Alioui’s sensational free kick failed. It was the third time that Morocco, through the same Alioui, hit Malawi’s woodwork.
“We tried and gave our best,” Morocco’s French coach said afterwards. That was it: They tried to win but could not, with their best chances hitting up against a Malawian side that was visibly hell-bent on conceding no goal, even if that meant scoring none either.