With tonight’s hammering of the Central African Republic, Morocco is the leader of Group E and almost qualified for the next CAN.
Rabat – Whether tonight’s performance from Morocco’s Atlas Lions was a glorious display of offensive prowess and organizational compactness is up to anxious debates among still disgruntled fans waiting for their team to make them happy again.
There is, in this sense, much to unpack from tonight’s game; and yet so little time to adequately do the unpacking.
Suffice it to say, then, that Morocco’s Atlas Lions have been rarely as incisive and decisive as they were tonight against a less technically gifted but stubbornly confident Central African team.
By the time the game reached the fifth minute, it was clear what was about to unfold here: A one-man show, one-way traffic punctuated by Morocco’s tactical superiority. So pronounced and unremitting was Morocco’s pressing that Central African players gave the impression of a barefooted man walking on a glass-covered ground.
With Hakimi and Ziyech leading the tempo for Morocco, the Atlas Lions looked supreme and irresistible for the first 20 minutes of the game. The first danger came when the two men combined to create confusion in the Central African defense.
They were at it again two minutes later. Defying the forest of bodies defending the Central African net, Ziyech created one of those killer passes for which he has won over England’s Premier League fans in just three appearances for Chelsea.
So well-timed was Ziyech’s pass that it would have been sacrilegious to miss the chance. But Hakimi being on equal footing, he produced a goal just as delicious. At 1-0 in just 10 minutes, all seemed settled for Morocco. By now, Les Fauves (The Wildcats), as Central African players are called, looked out of place and out of ideas.
But the sucker punch being a thing, a team that looked dejected and out of steam suddenly fought back with guile and enviable temper.
Maybe Morocco had gotten blase about the game, putting on that entitlement mentality that has for long been their undoing on the continental stage.
Maybe, as the Moroccan coach Vahid Halilhodzic put it in the pre-match press conference, the Central African players are just efficient and frightening when it comes to creating some pockets of space to occasionally assert themselves.
Or maybe, for all its supremacy, the Moroccan team’s high defensive line has not totally worked out the difficult art of stifling quick counterattacks. Whatever the reason, by minute 20, the Central African Republics was starting to grow into the game, winning a handful of their duels and exposing some cracks in Morocco’s pressing and defensive organization.
As Les Fauves set themselves to hit Morocco on counterattacks, their equalizer came at minute 24. And it was thoroughly deserved. In fact, this was the third time that Morocco’s defensive line had faltered, failed to countenance rare but lethal forward thrusts from the Central Africans.
On the previous two occasions, Morocco had Yassine Bounou to thank, with the Sevilla goalkeeper being constantly on the lookout for loose balls. Equally, though, Bounou was at fault for the equalizer. He came out too early, confusing his defense and leaving a worldful of space for the ball to finish inside his own net.
Rather than constrain Morocco, however, the surprise equalizer seemed to further galvanize them. At 1-1, the Atlas Lions looked like a man having his fist dinner with his in-laws-to-be: Confident and determined to prove that he’s the man, the right choice; that he is up to the challenge. That, ultimately, a setback is, well, just a setback—that is a template to show what he’s all about.
And so they pushed and attacked with more drive and enterprise than before. It was a scintillating display of everything that this squad has often lacked: Greed, envy, power, and decisiveness. Ziyech, the team’s beating heart and a reborn man, led the way. His first goal, from a penalty kick, could easily be dismissed by critics who can understably assert that this proves very little, if anything at all.
But his second — and Morocco’s third — was the illustration par excellence of what this new-look Morocco can be if their best two players — Hakimi and Zieych — are in form. At 3-1 before the end of the first half, Morocco was within touching distance of making the kind of statement their coach hankers after.
“I want to instill a winning spirit in the players, because some of them focus on having fun and become too relaxed. I always ask them to remain determined, which is what modern football requires,” Halilhodzich said in his pre-match press conference.
If tonight’s game was a test of Morocco’s winning mentality, the Atlas Lions almost nailed it. Or, more realistically, they made clear what has become their coach’s mantra. That this is still a team in-progress with the means to achieve great, career-defining results; that this is a really good, but not yet fully formed, team looking to swim back to relevance after a joy-sapping exit from the latest Africa Cup of Nations.
With their superiority on full display, the Atlas Lions had little to do in the second half: Build on the first-half’s momentum. And in this, they largely succeeded.
But that is hardly to say that the Central African team was an unremitting accomplice in its own irrelevance and defeat. Because for all Morocco’s tactical and technical superiority, the Central African players occasionally thrummed with pomp and excitement.
And so, while the momentum never really drifted away from the Atlas Lions, Les Fauves were quite riveting at times. During the brief moments in which they claimed possession and tried to build something of notice, their quick transitions built suspicion and doubt inside the Moroccan defense line.
In the offensive department, however, the Atlas Lions welcomed the Central Africans’ composure with fury and brimstone. With a reassuring, compact midfield, the offensive players — with Ziyech in command — had ample freedom to express their creativity and industriousness.
While tonight’s performance was a collective statement of intent from the Atlas Lions, it was even more personal for Ziyech. This was perhaps the Chelsea forward’s best performance for Morocco since his disappointing CAN display. He was at the heart of everything that worked well for Morocco.
“I am not afraid to make passes,” he said last week as he assessed his supreme ability to find his teammates in tight, improbable scoring angles. And so, it was yet another thumping statement of his tight angle passing genius when he sent out another pass to set in motion the buildup of Morocco’s fourth goal. At 4-1, the game was done for.
Perhaps it is worth emphasizing that Central Africa was not exactly a bumpy path, a strenuous test for Morocco’s Atlas Lions. And yet the fact remains that tonight was a positive, uplifting note for a team in search of the glorious style that had most pundits believe that they were the best African team at the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
That was in 2018, and two years are an eternity in the world of football, where so much can change in a month. For much of his time as Morocco’s coach, Halilhodzic has insisted that he wants to build something solid and efficient.
His plan, he has emphatically lectured, is to restore pride and hope by investing in a project of putting together a bolder, more incisive, and more reliable squad. With the personnel at his disposal, this does not look far-fetched at all.