The winning goal was the only outstanding moment in a dull and monotonous game between two teams that failed to deliver the kind of quality expected from the talents they boast.
Rabat – Even without En-Nesyri, Hakim Ziyech, and Nordin Amrabat, three foundational elements in this Herve Renard-coached and somewhat good-looking Morocco, the Atlas Lions did produce a rather satisfying and confidence-boosting football against a Messi-less Argentina.
But it is highly doubtful whether the quality of the game the lions produced will soothe Moroccans. Two consecutive goalless displays have brought to light what Morocco Atlas Lions mostly seem to lack: A sense of urgency and the guts to grab the defining moments when given the opportunity to do so.
If anything, tonight was a hugely underwhelming performance from both sides, leaving supporters from both camps disappointed that a game that had garnered so much passion and so many talking points was after all not as stellar as supporters may have hoped.
There was nothing particularly soporific about the 90 minutes of football in Tangier, but neither were there moments of ecstatic display that could live up to the pre-match fervor and excitement. With most of the ball possession and a far greater passing accuracy, Morocco looked set for an upset, something that seemed quite doable given that Argentina were clueless and unthreatening without the genius of Lionel Messi.
The first half hour, as though a carefully choreographed display from Morocco’s Lions latest game in Malawi, was rife with moments of confidence and promising brilliance. But that brilliance never really came.
In the absence of Ziyech, Belhanda, Achraf Hakimi, and Ziyech’s Ajax teammate Masraf Azraoui took it upon themselves to unsettle Argentina, playing with a level of confidence and mastery that quickly eclipsed Argentina’s starring player Paulo Dybala.
But, as was the case late last week when facing Malawi, Morocco failed to make its domination count, missing the few opportunities that came its way in the first half.
The first half’s most telling moment came down the right flank at the 22nd minute.
A succulent combination between Belhanda and Hakimi caused riotous uproar inside the Tangier stadium, with Moroccan supporters obviously expecting a goal. But there again, once inside the Argentine zone, the Lions lacked the clinical edge needed to transform that beautiful footballing moment into a goal that would define the evening.
Argentina replied in kind at the 24th minute, with a short-ranging strike from Rodriguez forcing the game’s first save from Morocco’s Yassine Bounou. But Argentina’s Roja were mostly unimpressive in the game, visibly out of ideas and inspiration, and perhaps waiting for an unlikely moment of grace. Passes were poor, while transitions were even more laughable. Without Messi, it seemed, Argentina plays like an ordinary team barely able to threaten its opponents.
In the players’ defense, however, the weather may have been responsible for some of the game’s most lackadaisical displays. With an unruly, windy weather that made it impossible for many players to perform at their usual level, it is understandable that the game went the way it went: prosaic, awful, uneventful, and only marginally exciting towards the end.
Of particular relevance here is the second half: Nothing remarkable, no outstanding moment. It was not only an extension, but a literal copy of the first half. Morocco kept playing beautiful but inconclusive football, while Dybala and company continued looking clueless.
At least that was the impression until the last ten minutes. Collecting a gracious pass at the 84th minute, Angel Correa, who moments earlier had entered the game in replacement of Paulo Dybala, crossed the entire Moroccan defensive line with a deft touch before lodging the ball inside the Moroccan net. Bounou read the soft strike’s trajectory, but could do little to save it.
After that late-minute goal, Morocco looked rejuvenated, now chasing an equalizer with a tempo and urgency than they had not even come close to evincing for more than eighty minutes.
As both coaches look forward to collecting the wherewithal needed for prospective victory in their continental tournaments, tonight was certainly a test of nerve for both teams. In that regard, it is sensible to suggest that both teams left tonight’s game with notes that may serve them well en route to the tournaments they are preparing for.
Argentina needs a working formula to get the most out of Messi in probably his last Copa America, whereas Morocco, for all their brilliance in passing and keeping the ball, are miles away from the finishing line required to secure the continental crown that has not been theirs since 1976.