Munir scores his first goal for Morocco and allows the Atlas Lions to end AfCON qualifiers with a laborious but well-deserved win.
Rabat – A laborious, but ultimately well-deserved win. All looks well for Morocco’s Atlas Lions — for now at least. Vahid Hallidhodzic’s men did tonight more than was nominally expected of them, claiming a quasi-useless win against an already disqualified team playing for consolation.
Hours before Morocco took on Burundi in Rabat, Mauritania’s 1-0 win against the Central African Republic meant the Burundians had nothing left to play for. Lose or win, Burundi would still not make it to the next African Cup of Nations.
Morocco, meanwhile, coming from a dispiriting scoreless draw against Mauritania, was sure to finish as top of its group. And so the only remotely motivating factor for both sides to muster a decent display was the assumed desire to end their qualifying campaign in style.
For Burundi, a fine result against Morocco, Africa’s fourth best team, could boost their morale and serve as a rallying encouragement for their next attempt at a continental qualification. For Morocco, another lifeless display could have sparked uncomfortable debates about the team and the future of its coach.
Even with qualification already secured, the Moroccan side, endlessly presented as one of the “big favorites” for the next African cup, needed a spirit-lifting performance to both appeal to unconvinced fans and critics and vindicate those who still believe this mostly misfiring team can finally win Morocco some silver.
Halilhodzic made two notable changes to the lineup he used against Mauritania — resting Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou. Munir Mohand Mohamedi, in to deputize for Bounou, spent a comfortable evening as Burundi never quite managed to trouble the much-improved Moroccan defense.
That the moroccan coach opted to use his A-list players (safe for Ziyech) in the starting line-up spoke volumes about what he expected from his team despite the ordinary occasion of the night.
“This is a group that has a lot of individual quality, but we’re going to have to have a much better collective game now,” said of his own lads in the post-match press conference after the insipid draw against Mauritania. “I am sad about the face shown by my players…. Some guys have to show a lot more when they play for Morocco, especially in terms of commitment.”
In the pre-match press conference this evening, Halilhodzic reiterated the same sentiment. He spoke of the need for more concentration and envy. Again and again, he suggested that while his Moroccan side has not been playing particularly sloppily, they have the wherewithal to do so much more.
Pragmatism and efficiency, coupled with constant urgency and hunger, appear to be the lifeblood of the Bosnian manager. For all the inspiring talk, however, Halilhodzic has largely failed to capture the imagination of Moroccan fans.
At any rate, tonight’s performance suggests the Atlas Lions Lions listen to their eternally unsatisfied, demanding coach. So much better than they were late last week, the Moroccans took on Burundi from the first minutes of the game with their sight palpably set on a statement victory.
And while Burundi rose up to the occasion, riposting to Morocco’s pivotal moments with zeal, calm, and some flashes of guarded guile, it was Morocco that dictated much of the tempo of the first half.
In the absence of Ziyech, Munir El Haddadi, playing his second game for Morocco, set the tone in the midfield and up front. As usual, the Atlas Lions’ slick movements on the flanks and the quick passing game proved at times too much for a retreating, increasingly hesitant Burundi.
In this sense, those who pinned last week’s dismal performance on the impossible state of the Mauritanian pitch have been proven, ultimately, right. Tactical superiority and flashes of technical brilliance are not always enough, however. And Burundi deservedly resisted for much of the first half. It took the effervescence of an in-form midfield and the brilliant Munir El Hadadi to give the Atlas Lions a much-liberating goal at the 44th minute.
Energized by their first half goal, the Moroccans came back looking even more organized. As Morocco’s grip grew, unrelenting, on the game, Burundi, now looking disjointed and hopeless, resorted to parking the bus. Rather than pushing for an equalizer, the Burundians simply settled for an acceptable defeat. The point of the second half, it seemed, was to keep Morocco’s intermittent burst of creativity at bay to avoid a smacking.
What to make of Morocco’s corruscating confidence from tonight’s win? As the team yet again teeters on a precipice, announcing itself as a big favorite for a tournament where greatness has long eluded it, can one appropriately laud the improvement this group is showing without appearing to be giving in to wishful thinking or empty triumphalism?
True, tonight’s game was nowhere near the kind of competitiveness and elite level the Moroccan Lions will face when playing some of Africa’s best teams during the African Cup. Equally true, this Moroccan squad is not more technically satisfying than the side whose performances galvanized fans and neutral onlookers in 2018-19 but ultimately failed to seize its defining moments. And yes, Halildozich’s record is not unblemished. In 12 games since his appointment, he has one loss and five draws.
But the change seems to be in the collective compactness and the fighting mentality and character Halilhodzic is known to demand from his players.
With him, reports of internecine wars have almost vanished. He has scolded and left out of selection players who “are not making enough efforts” to deserve a spot in his squad. He has imposed new habits on players, from playing less video games to sleeping and eating healthily when participating in the squad’s camps.
As things currently stand, this is indisputably not the best Moroccan side in the past five years. But – and this is of paramount importance – it is a team on the rise, still ongoing re-construction, that has given reassuring signs. That it knows what it wantsand working for it. Should the team stumble upon a working formula before the upcoming AfCON, it is almost sure to do far better than the spirit-crushing exit it inflicted on its fans during the 2019 African Cup.