African Cup of Nations Group A Preview – Morocco
The fantastically named Lions of the Atlas (certainly better than the ‘Blues’ or ‘Hoops’ of British football) will be making their 15th appearance at the African Cup of Nations this year, but they have only made the final twice, winning in 1976 and finishing as runners-up in 2004. Morocco were the first African side to make it to the second round of the World Cup. Not many people remember that they actually topped their first-round group in 1986; a group that included England, Poland, and Portugal.
They haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 1998, where they were famously on the verge of progressing to the second round until Norway scored a shock last-minute winner against eventual runners-up Brazil.
They are in the unusual position of being eligible not just for the African Cup of Nations but also the Arab Nations Cup, which they won for the first time last year, beating Libya on penalties in the final.
How Did They Qualify?
Morocco received a bye to the second round of qualification for this year’s tournament and faced Mozambique in a two-legged tie.
Despite losing the first leg in Maputo 2-0, they rallied at home in the return match to emerge 4-0 winners, sealing qualification with a goal in the fourth minute of injury time.
Morocco reacted to their first-leg defeat against Mozambique by sacking their Arab Nations Cup-winning manager Eric Gerets. The gamble paid off when new manager Rachid Taoussi led the team to victory in the return leg. Taoussi first stepped into management at Union Sidi Kacem, the Moroccan club where he spent most of his playing career. He quickly moved up the ranks in the national set-up, first becoming U17 manager and then the senior team’s assistant manager.
His only honours at club level came in 2001 with MAS Fez where he won the Coupe du Trône (the Moroccan equivalent of the FA Cup), followed by the CAF Confederation Cup.
This is where it gets very interesting. Taoussi has named a squad for the tournament very light on experience. Among the players who will be sat at home watching it on television (and contributing to their club’s pushes for survival or quests for glory) are QPR’s Adel Taraabt, Arsenal’s Marouane Chamakh and Al-Araby’s midfielder Houssine Kharja. The Raja Casablanca striker Yassine Salhi has also been left out of the squad despite scoring eight goals in his 11 appearances, including the six goals that crowned him the Golden Boot of the 2012 Arab Nations Cup. There’s still some talent in the team though.
Mounir El Hamdaoui is likely to be the most recognisable player to most European viewers, having come up through the ranks in the Dutch league with Excelsior. Martin Jol signed him for Tottenham Hotspurs in 2005 but he never broke into the first team and spent a short spell at loan at Derby County. The following year he returned to Holland with Willem II, but it was at AZ Alkmaar that he enjoyed the most success. In 2009, he finshed as top scorer in the Eredivisie (outscoring Ajax’s Luis Suarez) and was named Dutch Footballer of the Year.
A move to Ajax followed, but after falling out with manager Frank de Boer he moved to Fiorentina in the summer of 2012. His experience will be vital if Morocco are to progress much further than the group stages.
Mehdi Benatia may only be 25 years old, but he is the defensive rock upon which this Moroccan team is built on. He represented France in his youth but chose to play for Morocco at senior level, making his debut in 2008. He is currently plying his trade in Serie A with Udinese.
Nadir Lamyaghri is the most experienced member of the squad and the goalkeeper was part of the team that finished as runners-up in the 2004 tournament.
At 36 years old, this is likely to be his final tournament.
How Far Can They Go?
They are in a group with hosts South Africa as well as Angola and Cape Verde. They will feel they can get a win against an Angola team that aren’t as good as previous tournaments and their match against the hosts in the final round of group stage matches is likely to determine the winner of the group.
If they make it into the second round, they will likely be facing either Ghana or Mali and it’s difficult to see them progressing much further, evidenced by the fact that you can still get odds of 18/1 on them lifting the trophy on 10 February.