With one match played apiece in Group D of the African Cup of Nations 2019, Morocco lie second in the table behind Ivory Coast, after both sides got off to winning, but ultimately unconvincing starts, in their first match of this year’s tournament. The Ivory Coast edged out South Africa by a solitary goal, and it was a similar story in Cairo, where Morocco needed an 89th minute own goal by substitute Itamunua Keimune to clinch victory, when it looked like they might have to settle for a draw.
It was not the performance that the Atlas Lions were looking for, but manager Hervé Renard is experienced enough to know that a “win is a win”, and that the important thing in any tournament is to start off with a victory, in order to build team confidence and morale.
Morocco went into the match with their strongest available line-up, with captain Mehdi Benatia anchoring the side, and Ajax player of the year, Hakim Ziyech, very much the spearhead of their attack. Yet, in the first half in particular, Morocco struggled to impose themselves against a resolute and well organised Namibia defence, and were forced to take long range pot shots. The closest they came to finding the net came from a low shot from Ziyech, which Namibia keeper Lloyd Kazapu could only gather at the second attempt.
With strong words from Renard no doubt echoing in their ears, Morocco came out after half time with more purpose and determination in their stride. Former Watford player Nordin Amrabat got clear on the left, skipping away from Namibia right-back Riaan Hanamub, and put in an inviting cross for Youssef En-Nesyri to convert, only for defender Ryan Nyamable to come up with a vital clearance just in time.
Renard then shuffled his pack, bringing on attacking midfielder Sofiane Boufal for the more defensively-minded Mehdi Bourabia, as he looked to exert more pressure on the Namibian goal.
On 72 minutes, Morocco thought they had the break-through – a shot from Ziyech took a deflection and looked to be heading in, but Kazapua was able to adjust his position in time and stuck out a boot to save. And then, with 12 minutes to go, former Southampton man Boufal curled wide, and, as the minutes ticked down, Namibia thought they had earned a hard-fought point.
However, fate had other ideas in store. With 10 minutes to go, Namibia sensed an unlikely upset could be on the cards, and withdrew Absalom Limbondi in favour of striker Keimuine. However, with two minutes left he fouled Boufal on the right and, inexplicably, misjudged the resulting cross and powered a header off the turf and past his own keeper.
It was a cruel blow for Namibia – although they offered very little in attack, they had defended stoutly and with great organisation. Morocco, for their part, had 67% possession, and 17 shots to their opponent’s three. Yet only five of those shots were on target, and they will know that they need to do more in front of goal if they want to progress further in this competition. More time also needs to be spent on the training ground working on their combinations and build-up play, and making sure they utilise the trickery and darting runs of Ziyech to the full.
However, for Renard there was at least the satisfaction of knowing that his attempt to become the first man to win the African Cup of Nations with three different countries – he lifted the title with Zambia in 2012, and again with the Ivory Coast three years later – has got off to a winning start.
In the other match the Ivory Coast narrowly defeated South Africa, thanks to a single gaol scored by Aston Villa striker Jonathan Kodjia, picking up a ball from veteran Max Gradel before slotting it under keeper Ronwen Williams.
The Elephants, who sprang a surprise by leaving Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha on the bench to start with, enjoyed much of the early play, and struck the bar when Lille forward Nicolas Pépé, who has been linked with a move to some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Liverpool and Bayern Munich, struck the bar with a curling free kick. Kodjia then spurned a golden opportunity to put his side ahead a few minutes later, picking up a poor back pass from Thulani Hlatshwayo, only to fire straight at the keeper when it seemed easier to score.
However, in the 64th minute, Kodjia made amends, and, in the end, his strike proved to be the difference between the two sides.
Hlatshwayo missed the best chance for South Africa, heading a cross from Sifiso Hlanti wide when the match was still scoreless, whilst another chance for Pépé late on was tipped over the bar by goalkeeper Williams.
It was a match where South Africa had more possession than the Ivory Coast, but it was largely sterile, with lots of lateral movement, and they failed to muster a single shot on target. For their part, the Ivory Coast will know that they could have done better, and there will be demands from the country’s fans for Zaha to start the next match.
The teams now are focused on Friday, when Morocco will face the Ivory Coast in Cairo, followed by South Africa taking on Namibia later that same evening. Already this is looking like a Group D decider, with the winner likely to have an easier passage when it comes to the knock-out phases of the competition.
However, much may decide on the mentality of the two teams, and whether one, or the other, decides to go for the win, or opts instead to play safe. A draw might not be a bad result for either side. A point apiece would virtually guarantee both of them qualification from the Group, and would leave them free to go for a big win against the two minnows in the group in the third match, with goal difference deciding who tops the group.
Both teams know that they can play better after their opening fixture, but it might be too early in the tournament to fully show their hands yet.
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