Rabat – There were, it is true, perceptible changes in Morocco’s game, from the line-up to the way they played. Their philosophy seemed different, even if the end result bore markers of déjà-vu for fans who suffered the exciting yet frustrating Atlas lions of CAN 2019.
As the Atlas Lions, fresh from their CAN disappointment, played Burkina Faso at the Marrakech stadium, it was clear from the beginning what the fans wanted: an opportunity for players to redeem themselves, and perhaps a chance at invoking the spirits of a team that used to actually score.
Scoring goals has been Morocco’s biggest problem. They have been impeccable in terms of tactical disposition, playing exquisite football and overwhelming most of the teams they have played in the last three months—even Argentina—with a kind of footballing dexterity that makes fans think: “Yes, this is the team, big time!”
And yet tonight was a textbook rendition of what Morocco has been in its most recent outings: focused and technically irresistible but somehow, and inexplicably so, incapable of scoring, of finding the tiny cracks that great teams tend to find in opposing teams’ disposition.
Morocco’s Lions started well tonight against Burkina, their passing accuracy far more superior to their opponents’, while their flow of ball, especially in the middle and on both flanks, meant that, like Ivory Coast and Benin before them, Burkina played the kind of football where your main concern is to prevent your opponent from scoring. A type of play based on parking the bus and counting on providence to take advantage of the few counterattacking opportunities the opposing side throws, reluctantly, in your way.
And so for 45 minutes in the first half, there was a sense of monotonous regularity to the actions. Morocco pressured and pushed, while Burkina held back and waited for Morocco to err and concede scoring chances.
At which point, by minute 55, barely 10 minutes into the second half, it would have been a safe, accurate bet to expect a scoreless draw. But football has its own ways. It so often happens that, in a matter of mere minutes, what seemed like a done deal, a sealed un-performance, can become lively and enthralling.
The spectacle here, at the Marrakech Stadium, may not have been that lively in the second half. But at least it was different. Burkina Faso started to believe they could make something meaningful of their evening in Marrakech. And Morocco, for its part, seemed to be waking up, rather belatedly, to the reality that this was an opportunity to start burrying the painful memories of the recently conclude CAN.
With a new coach intent on “changing some things” and breathing discipline and in a team he called talented but deeply flawed and in need of reconstruction, tonight game was supposed to be the signal of a whole new, post-Renard era.
But the only difference in this side and the one that played the recent CAN came in the last 10 minutes of the game, as Morocco, now down 1-0, chased indefatigably for the equalizer. Just now, in the game’s dying minutes, they started displaying the passion and drive that a team of their standing should have summoned much, much earlier.
It would have been sacrilegious to lose, and the players knew it. The longed-for equalizer did come at the 88th minute, courtesy of a deflection gifted to Morocco’s Zouhair Feddal by a poor Burkina defense. With a 1-1 scoreline against Burkina, Morocco has dodged a defeat that would have raised many (uncomfortable) questions, something that would have been ruinous for the morale, spirit of a new era that has not actually really started yet.
“We still have a long way to go,” Morocco’s new coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, said at the end of the match when asked about his overall take-away from his team’s performance. And maybe that’s all Morocco has got for the moment, that’s the only consolation at the team’s disposal: this transitional period will take time. But if handled well, it could give Morocco the kind of team it has been hankering after for years.
Yesterday noon, Validhodzic faced the Moroccan media in his maiden press conference as Atlas Lions coach. He was asked to give an outline of what his coaching tenure will look like with Morocco. What, in other words, does he think this team needs to do to rise above its current level, to win titles and make history?
“I have watched all their games at the World Cup and the African Cup of Nations—twice. I think some things need rebuilding…. I’ve heard quite a lot about how talented this team is. But then I see forwards who have only managed to score three or four goals in a season. That’s not talent.”
The Bosnian coach spoke about pace, physical strength, and mental stamina, saying that it is the lack of a balanced combination of these factors that accounts for Morocco’s mediocre performance in front of goal.
Judging from tonight performance, and not to mention yet another penalty miss from Hakim Ziyech, it is hard not to agree with Valilhodzic’s assessment of where Morocco currently stands.
The point, however, is whether the Bosnian can lead this team where it needs to be. Which brings us back to an earlier point: He may ultimately lead them there, but it will take time—transitions, at least successful ones, always do. Halilhodzic is already being called a miracle worker. But miracles don’t come cheaply.