Soccer: Defenders book Morocco's place at World Cup
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Goals from defenders Nabil Dirar and Medhi Benatia handed Morocco a 2-0 away win over the Ivory Coast on Saturday in their last World Cup qualifier and booked a return to the finals for the first time in two decades.
Morocco needed only a draw from their final Group C game to finish top of the standings in the African preliminaries, ahead of the Ivorians, who had to win to clinch a fourth successive World Cup finals appearance.
But after weathering an early storm, including a potential penalty call, Morocco scored two goals in the space of five minutes to put themselves on their way to the finals, where their last appearance was in France in 1998.
Dirar’s cross from the right evaded both a diving Khalid Boutaib and the Ivorian goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo to give Morocco a 25th-minute lead.
The goalkeeper was almost beaten again four minutes later when an awkward free kick from Hakim Ziyech took him by surprise at the near post.
But from the resultant corner, the home defence were caught napping and central defender Benatia was able to calmly stick out his foot and guide the ball into the net to make it 2-0.
Morocco could have been 3-0 up just seconds into the second half when Gbohouo made a hash of a cross, allowing the ball to fall to Mbark Boussoufa, whose goalbound effort was cleared off the line by Serge Aurier.
The Ivorians might have taken the lead when captain Gervinho missed an early chance and then looked unlucky not to be awarded a penalty when Romain Saiss pulled back Wilfried Zaha.
Instead the referee gave a free kick on the edge of the box which Max Gradel hit straight into the wall.
Aurier might have given the hosts a chance to launch a fight back in the final 20 minutes, but he blasted the ball wildly over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
Tempers spilled over as the two sides exchanged wild tackles and punches in the closing stages and Ivorian fans pelted the pitch with objects as their frustration boiled over.
Morocco completed the campaign without conceding a goal, finishing on 12 points, four ahead of the Ivorians. Gabon had seven and bottom-placed Mali five.
(Reporting by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town; Editing by Neville Dalton)