After a lacklustre display against Namibia, Moroccans expected more of their players.
Rabat – 1-0 is generally not a particularly impressive result. But Morocco’s Lions display against their most threatening opponent in the group stage was a thunderous testament to what this team can do when playing at its most scintillating.
Should Morocco go on to win this year’s Afcon, to finally break the curse of three decades of disheartening continental performances, of embarrassing exits, of lack of clinical instincts at the most defining moments, the Cote d’Ivoire game will go down as their “moment of truth.”
Where Morocco had been unconvincingly dominant—and quite lucky—in their first game against Group D’s underdog, they were impressive against Cote d’Ivoire, one of Africa’s most elite-packed teams.
The game started with unusual intensity, with Ivorians pressing in the very fist minutes. That premature pressure yielded a spiriting result. A strong Serge cross was met by Jonathan Kodjia who elicited the first save from Yassine Bono, the Moroccan keeper. Those promising first minutes about set the mood for the entire first half as both teams evincing a sense of urgency and purpose.
The games’ intensity was particularly felt in the Serge Aurier-Nordin Amrabat duel. Two players who take pride in their exquisite marriage of tender technique and buccaneering physicality, they seemed, from the very outset, conscious that each’s performance would have a consequential bearing on the trajectory of the game, the final outcome.
But there was a short moment of energy drop after the exciting first fifteen minutes, with the players now calming the excitement of starters to have—perhaps—a clearer picture of what they were up against here. Sporting rationality suggests it is always a good thing to pause in order to come with more vigor.
Morocco’s first scoring opportunity came at the 18th minute. Channeling his usual imperial presence on the left flank, Hakimi sent a beautifully executed cross in the Ivorian half. Youssef En-Nesyri made perfect contact, shooting the ball as accurately as possible from where he stood.
The shot flew off target. But it was enough as an indicator of Herve’s lad’s ruthlessness when they resort to quick successions through the flanks.
No sooner had the clock struck 24 minutes that Moroccan came again. Amrabat, whose usual catalogue of heroics have won him a special place in the Moroccan footballing imaginary, was mind-bendingly clinical here.
How—and do pardon the sporting parlance’s tendency to exaggerate—does one not delight in the audacity with which Amrabat single-handedly danced his way through the entire Ivorian defense to set En-Nysiri free to grant Moroccan fans the elation they had been expecting as their team appeared imperiously dominant?
Amarabat is no stranger to such bursts of heroism. But—and there is a certain banality in stating the obvious—that move right there was beyond his usual standards, the nadir of his regular heroics. At 1-0, the game was mostly a one-man show.
Ivory Coast has great individuals players, and they did try to unsettle Renard’s boys, to construct momentum, to discomfit the feeling that, as the game edged towards the vital moments, Morocco was simply the better side.
This, of course, is not to refuse Ivorians their due, the credit for delivering what sometimes looked like a good performance.
Michel Seri was particularly tantalizing; Aurier, in spite of Amrabat’s stratospheric display, was a reassuring presence for the most part. Max Gradel, when he had the ball, did threaten the Moroccan defense. But it was not enough. It takes more than the performance Aurier and company offered tonight to rise to the challenge of a Moroccan squad featuring all its star players.
Anyone who watched Morocco’s pre-World Cup displays felt, as Renard’s boys comfortably dominated this game, an unmistakable sense of deja-vu. Belhanda swaggered; Hakimi was unstoppable; Ziyach was not at his most sinctaliating, but he still managed to be a constant threat. And what of Amrabat? Enough, isn’t it?
The second half, to give it its due, had its own thunderclap moments. The Aurier-Amrabat duel continued, for example. However, it was Morocco that largely, unquestionably, led the mood here. A calm and calming presence, Amrabat was greeted with a chorus of fawning approval every time he touched the ball. Apart from his traditional youthful ebullience and Herculean elegance when protecting possession, the darling of Moroccan fans was an indomitable opponent, a soothing team mate.
More to the point, on a purely footballing level, the display against Namibia comes nowhere close to what the Atlas Lions delivered this evening. And so, you can now count Morocco among the favorites to lift the trophy.
1-0 does not sound—indeed it is not—a surging victory. Consequently, it would sound like a misguided, grossly self-indulgent suggestion, to maintain that this “Renard generation” has what it takes to be champions.
That is to say: besides a few defensive gaffes, there was a certain air of complacency once the Moroccan players reached the Ivorian half. They could have easily won 3, 4-0 had they been more focused in front of goal to take most of their scoring opportunities.
Nonetheless, the highly commanding quality of the performance should be enough to shatter doubts and calm nerves. As it happens, now that morale has been boosted, it needs to be sustained.