Rabat – Morocco’s Atlas Lions, sometimes lacking the style that has made them a revered opponent in African football, struggled to top their group.
This has involved scoring two unlikely last-minute goals to trump a failure to exploit the cracks of the opposition in a more timely manner. So things have so far gone Morocco’s way in the ongoing Africa Cup of Nationals (CAN) tournament.
The Atlas Lions topped their group, perhaps the tournament’s toughest, and conceded no goals in the process.
But for all the perfect statistics and the morale-boosting presence in many aspects of their game, the Moroccan Lions have rarely been at their most engaging. And, as the competition reaches the knockout stage and intensity mounts, decent will no longer be enough.
Or, to put in the ruthlessly blunt style of Herve Renard, the Moroccan coach, Morocco has shone but failed to do so with the touch of style and brilliance that has come to be expected of this world-class player-packed squad.
On July 1, as Morocco emerged from a recital of ruthless efficacy against Ivory Coast, an opponent the Moroccan Lions overwhelmed and suffocated, expectations had been that South Africa would face a similar fate.
That day, however, Morocco played as they did against Namibia in their first outing in this CAN–dominant and defensively mature, but largely clueless and inefficient in attacking.
Renard, who had said before the South Africa game that the goal was to focus on topping their group, presumably to expect a more playable adversary for the next stage, may have been satisfied with the result. But the Frenchman was not happy.
Renard felt, as he assessed his team’s performance after the game, that they had been wasteful and unthreatening in key moments, misfiring and unwisely using the attacking arsenal at their disposal.
Or, was it that South Africa was actually a far more serious opponent than expected? That the Bafana Bafana’s sense of organization, especially their stifling presence in midfield, caught Moroccans utterly unguarded?
The answer, as is often the case with a game where every match comes with its own realities, calls for perspective, nuance.
But Renard, as he tentatively gauged what has been missing in the performance of a side carrying a burdensome task of making it work where generations have failed in over three decades, said that Morocco could have done–and must do–better with the kind of players the team boasts.
“To be honest, I think we went home at half time. That is, we only played 45 minutes,” Renard commented on the match. Renard went on to say that the team must remain vigilant and focused in their upcoming matches.
He noted that the best teams in Africa are playing in this competition, and Morocco needs to be at its best to win.
Downplaying his team’s strengths is not unlike Renard. For all his unparalleled success at the CAN competition, the Frenchman is famous for thriving when his team is not taken seriously.
He has generally seemed to delight in being an underdog that upsets, alter the order of things. But Morocco is not an underdog at this year’s CAN, which is perhaps why Renard seems to be intent on aligning results and appeal.
This change in Renard’s typical attitude to games was most visible in his comments on what he said was a commanding display from the South Africans.
Renard said, “Sometimes football just comes down to results, and I don’t think this team deserves only 3 points in the group stage.”
He added, speaking of his lads, “The team did not play a great match against South Africa, but they realized the most important thing: the win.”
Perhaps Renard’s caution will be more resonant now that the Moroccan players know who their opponents will be for the next stage. At 5 p.m (Moroccan time) on Friday, July 5, the Atlas Lions will confront Benin’s Squirrels.
As with the game against South Africa, Morocco goes into that encounter as the overwhelming favorites. A slightly discomfiting consideration, however, is that Benin will most probably play against Morocco with the advantage of being an unruly, stubborn underdog.
The Beninese Squirrels claimed 3 points in 3 games. While Benin obviously lacks everything that has made the name of Renard’s Morocco–creativity, pace, attacking bravura, and technical prowess–their three games, all of which they drew, suggest this is a squad that plays with an acute sense of what its strengths and weaknesses are.
The 2-2 and 0-0 draws against, respectively, Ghana and Cameroon are particularly telling. Against two big names of African football, Benin put on the kind of display with which many underdogs have gotten the best of revered opposition.
With a kind of Jose Mourinho-esque insistence on “simple football,” Benin has played an unadorned type of football: Defend in blocks and attack when you can or, as against Ghana, when necessary. Morocco, to repeat what has become Renard’s mantra, will have to be at its best to unlock an intransigeant and strong-willed Beninese side.
More to the point: As far as Benin is concerned, the game against Morocco rings with the echo of “they have more to lose than us” mentality that has elicited the unlikeliest results from “playable” games.
Morocco has history on its side, having spanked Benin 6-1 in a friendly and 4-0 in their latest CAN confrontation in 2004. When it comes to football, however, the past is almost never something to bank on.
And so, as Benin hopes to upset the traditional order of things, Renard’s call carries singular resonance: The Atlas Lions will have “to deploy their very best” and breath more life into their rhythm in order to prolong their stay in Egypt.