Without playing at his usual level, Ziyech’s only moment of modest brilliance handed Morocco three crucial points for qualification.
It was difficult enough for Central Africa’s fully-loaded Les Fauves to contain the smooth and elegant play of Morocco’s Atlas Lions when the two teams met on Friday evening.
In the soul-sapping absence of Geoffrey Kondogbia and Amos Youga, two pillars for the largely inexperienced Central African team, it was virtually impossible for them to win against a better-practiced, more experienced Moroccan side.
And so, to a very large extent, today’s confrontation was a close — but very imperfect — copy of Friday’s. The score may not have been identical, with the Central African team largely packing the bus and waiting to surprise Morocco with a blitz of lethal counter-attacking plays. This “wait and assail” approach proved effective at times.
At minute 17, for example, the feisty confidence of Central Africa’s rapid transition-based style took Morocco by surprise to create the match’s first clear-cut scoring opportunity. It took a degree of fortune and goalkeeper Yassine Bounou’s excellent positional sense to keep the danger at bay.
The only notable difference here, at least in the opening minutes, was that Morocco’s usually elegant offensive line of Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi was silent, almost nonexistent.
Much of the battle for today’s game happened in the midfield, where Morocco’s duo of Sofyan Amrabat and Adel Taarabt struggled to contain Les Fauves’ rare moments of magic from the surprising pace and versatility of a technically-diminished Central African collective.
Compounding the trouble for Morocco, as already suggested, was the absent presence of the team’s usually indomitable duo. Hakimi was universes away from his usual form. Ziyech, in the meantime, struggled to find the genius and absorbing elation that made him the main man of last week’s confrontation.
As Morocco punched far below its weight, Central Africa tried to punch back. For that, however, the Central Africans sorely needed the gusto and luster that only Kondogbia, their absent captain, could have provided.
By minute 40 last week, Morocco had already won 3-1 and wrecked unremitting chaos inside the opposing tactical setup. Here, though, there was less intensity and creativity in the first half. There were only brief, epiphanic moments of scintillating moves from two teams visibly focused on mitigating the other’s attacking arsenal.
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Morocco, however, held an advantage as players of a certain level do not always need to be at their absolute best to muster a crucial, game-definging display. Sometimes, all it takes is a single moment of focus and modest brilliance to lift the metal block, kill the game, and change the entire course of an otherwise laborious performance.
Such players create danger out of nothing and give their teams a much-needed draw, or victory—depending on what is at play in the moment.
And Ziyech is just such a player. His goal here, scored at minute 40, came from what was unarguably intended as a dangerous cross in the Central African penalty area. But amid the bedlam of heads and feet contending for a touch at the ball, the round little thing eluded everyone to lodge itself inside the net of a befuddled, speechless Central African keeper.
In the end, therefore, the Chelsea man may not have been the irresistible guiding light he has proven of late. However, his goal allowed a largely uninspired Moroccan side to grow a little more into the game and start, even if fleetingly, operating at the peak of their offensive powers.
More tellingly, the goal was crucial in opening up the game for both teams.
At 1-0 after the break, the Central Africans started leaving more spaces behind as they searched for an equalizer. While the result was not exactly a torrent of aggressive moments from the Atlas Lions, the spaces did allow Morocco to play with more inventiveness and cohesion. By and large, though, the second half was as balanced and lively as the first half was tedious.
Morocco’s second goal came when victory was already in their grasp. But the scorer, Youssef En-Nesyri surely needed it—for confidence and a starting spot.
For those who expected another bravura performance from Morocco’s Atlas Lions, fans can say the match was relatively disappointing. While legitimate, this sentiment is inaccurate. Top-level football at club level is not the same as its counterpart at international level, as Jonathan Wilson recently put it. International football is about the simple and basic, as opposed to the constant glamor and exquisiteness of club football.
And while this is not exactly a time for bombast, the Atlas Lions’ victory today put them among those already qualified for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. Mathematically, as commentators will surely remind us, Morocco is still not 100% qualified, even if its 10 points put it largely ahead of second-placed Mauritania (5 points).
But with the depth and quality of this squad, it will take more than a miracle to deny the Atlas Lions another participation in Africa’s most coveted footballing feasts.
To Vahid Halilhodzic’s enormous credit, the Moroccan coach seems to have instilled in his players what international football requires above all else: A balanced mingling of pragmatism and creativity.
On certain occasions, some not so long ago, Morocco could not win without being at their best, without taking most of their chances after suffocating the opposition. With Halilhodzic, however, those days seem to be a distant memory. But then again, as he himself likes to insist, the most defining, difficult tests are still to come. Again, this is not a time for bombast. Not yet at least.