Morocco had not won by such a margin in months. The joy,relief, and delight of the Atlas Lions were easily visible at the final whistle.
Rabat – Vahid Halilhodzic, the head coach of the Moroccan national team, was crystal clear about what the stakes were in today’s CAN qualifier against Burundi. “It is a must win,” he had said, his face serious, reflecting the importance of the game for his future as head coach of Morocco.
He had said the same thing before the game against Mauritania, only for his lads to put on the kind of shoddy and embarrassing displays that had become typical of the Moroccan team’s performances. Their wastefulness and inefficiency in front of goals, however, is not reflective of the talents in the squad.
Today’s game, the second qualifier in an E group where Morocco has been touted the favorite, sounded different. Losing or—not winning, to be more exact—meant the whole series of pre and post-match conferences about rebuilding and changing the team’s morale had so far amounted to nothing of substance. Winning, to put it as bluntly as some rumors from the Moroccan federation had it, was the only option for Halilhodzic if he wanted to continue his coaching journey with the Atlas Lions.
The weight of the pressure of expectations was immediately visible in the way Morocco negotiated its way past Burundi’s stubborn defensive architecture in the first minutes of the game. Here, as much as nice passing and mid-field dominance mattered, scoring mattered more.
A high stakes game
So, from the very beginning, there was a sense of urgency and determination, suggesting the mental state of a group of lads putting everything on the line to redeem themselves. For Morocco, the Burundi game was more an occasion for redemption, for making up with fans who have understandably grown tired of supporting a team that took them for granted. The scoreline, 3-0, said it all. Winning was compulsory, as Halilhozic had insisted. But it was also liberatory. It came with the promise of the big start, the whole new era that Morocco’s Bosnian coach has repeatedly preached.
Like against Mauritania, the playmaking in the midfield and on the flanks was close to impeccable, with Hakimi, Ziyech, and Mazraoui doing what they do best. The difference today, however, was perhaps that there was more urge and desire to go forward, to find the little cracks, the midfield-full backs-attack connections capable of making the most of the scoring chances and ball possession.
Burundi, although playing on its home soil, would have understandably been content with a draw. So they defended superbly in the first quarter, frustrating Morocco’s every initiative and winning important possession in dangerous, goal-scoring situations. But the Moroccan Lions’ superior quality made things increasingly untenable for Burundi, and made the draw an impossible outcome.
Breaking through Burundi’s defense
By 1-0 at the 24 minute, courtesy of the brilliant Mazraoui, it was clear—or discernible—that there were goals more to come for Morocco. The Ajax man was one of the best performers in Morocco’s lifeless draw against Mauritania. But his class and hunger to prove himself with the national team made the difference against an hitherto impregnable Burundian defense. Mazraoui’s goal gave Morocco’s Lions the starter they desperately needed to emerge from a series of underwhelming displays since their humiliating CAN exit.
As if the goal had freed the Lions from an unbearable load, they started overwhelming Burundi, endlessly pushing forward and forcing the East African side into making mistakes in dangerous areas.
The second goal was the culmination of such pressure. Receiving a rebound in the penalty area, En-Nysri sent home Morocco’s second goal just some six minutes before the break.
At 2-0, Morocco, assured of its victory, grew more confident. Meanwhile, Burundi, avoiding an emphatic Moroccan victory, which would have been humiliating in front of the home crowd, settled for yet more defense.
But with Morocco’s obsession with winning back the hearts of its disheartened fans, or mending the wounds and pain of the disastrous past few months, Burundi had no chance. And so Morocco kept knocking; furious, relentless, and hungry for a third goal.
That third goal came at the end, classy and beautiful, courtesy of Achraf Hakimi. The Dortmund right back is a delight to watch and, when running for possession, as he did here to score the third goal, his pace and sense of movement are shrewd, hard for the opponent to read.
In fact, Hakimi usually does the thwarting, and he did so at the 82 minute, his direct opponent looking in disbelief and exasperation as the Dortmund man outpaced him to lodge home the third goal.
Morocco had not won by such a margin in months. The joy and relief and delight of the Atlas Lions were easily visible at the final whistle. But this, as both Halilhodzic and his lads probably know, is barely a starting point. Emerging from the kind of frustration and pain that the Atlas Lions have inflicted on their fans requires more than an easy tour de force against an opponent of Burundi’s stature.
Halilhozic, not one to mince his words, said he was “very happy” with today’s victory. But, he stressed, his team still needs to “do more” to meet the expectations and aspirations that it has set itself, that Moroccans have invested in them. Most Atlas Lions fans, had they been asked, couldn’t agree more: There is still so much more to do, much more to improve. Brilliance against mediocre opposition is not enough.