Rabat – There was a flair of diminished confidence and unattended doubts as Morocco took on Namibia’s in the opening game of Group D. For a team that has been repeatedly hailed for its enormous reserve of talented players but dismally failed to captivate in its latest displays, this was the opportunity for the Moroccan Lions to register a successful entry into this year’s Afcon.
Perhaps that is why the Moroccan Lions immediately went for possession and bold dominance right at kick off, passing deep into the Namibian half, connecting the vivacity on the flanks with the creativity in the middle. Or at least so they tried, with Hakim Ziyech, the team’s professed creative mind one of the continent’s most gifted players, touching more balls than anyone on the field in the first half.
For much of the first half hour, however, the match was rather an exercise in caution and risk management. Like two boxers holding back their most lethal punches until they uncover the opponent’s weakest spots, Morocco and Namibia played it nice in the first half, investing more in neutralizing each other rather than in being a threat. No high intensity, no usual outbursts of over-patriotic subtext.
Namibia, forever composed, defended high and well. Putting up a compact defensive wall from the midfield, they seemed to have no issues with granting Morocco more possession. They were confident in the pace and vigorous on the wings, and chose to strike Morocco on counters should opportunities arise.
It was the kind of matches you get when other underdogs have already beaten some favorites at this tournament, making other favorites more reserved.
Intermittently, though, there were flashes of deftness that indicated what the second half could be: completely different. Morocco, growing confident as the game drove on, played with the flawed intensity of a side aware that this opening could be the game that defines the rest of its tournament.
But the Moroccans failed time and again to effectively exploit the spaces that Namibia’s surrender-to-strike-back-better performance granted them. And so for 45 minutes, the Atlas Lions controlled and dominated unconvincingly. At times, however, the sheer sight of cases like Ziyech’s, Hakimi’s, or even Boufal’s, was enough to suggest that this was a squad with enough talents to make things fall apart for the opposition at any moment.
Whatever happened in the Moroccan dressing room at half time, it looked game-changing for the first 20 minutes into the second half. The Lions came with renewed vigor and much more aggressiveness. And, on second thought, saying “even Boufal” was perhaps the most jarringly inaccurate assessment of Morocco’s reserve of lethal players.
Slightly eclipsing the genius of Ziyech and frontally taking on the entire Namibian defense during moments of rare brilliance, the Celta Vigo man was the most important, threatening player for most of the second half.
Lively, deft, and implacably focused, Boufal was singularly the origin of the few riveting moments in the later part of the game. The most telling illustration was perhaps with his exquisite 59th minute shot that elicited an equally first-rate save from LIoyd Kazapua, the Namibian goal keeper.
Having magisterially flounced past two Namibian defenders, Boufal registered a superb diver shot. The beauty of the move was enough to take Moroccan fans at the stadium off their seats. But they would have to wait longer to actually live the joy of winning, the excitement of a late-minute winner when everything seemed to suggest a scoreless end.
If Namibia’s composure was somewhat attractive in the first half, the South Africans seemed utterly, irreversibly overwhelmed in the second. They created zero goal chance and spent over 80 minutes trying to keep Morocco’s most attacking players at bay.
And so, even as Morocco played a rather impeccable second half, there was a lingering feeling, as the clock read 89 minutes, that the game was marching toward a scoreless draw, yet another disappointing outcome for Moroccan fans. However, just as Moroccan hopes seemed to flatten, Namibia’s Keimouine stepped in—rather unfortunately for him—to score a last-minute winner from a Hakim Ziyech cross.
Even as they claimed three very important points to take the lead in the tournament’s “group of death,” the game was the quintessence of what the Moroccan Lions have become of late: A team with everything to succeeded but going through a long moment of doubt they will have to conquer to rise to the overload of expectations weighing on their shoulders.
“I know so much is expected of me, of us,” Morocco’s Herve Renard said in the pre-match press conference. Perhaps that should be the spirit as the Lions prepare to take on tougher challenges as this competition takes on more intense, aggressive undertone.