300×600
300×600

Much-fancied Morocco enjoy strong start at AFCON

ABIDJAN: Shock 2022 World Cup semi-finalists Morocco cruised to a 3-0 win over 10-man Tanzania as they opened their Africa Cup of Nations campaign on Wednesday, while 2012 champions Zambia held the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Captain Romain Saiss, Azzedine Ounahi and Youssef En-Nesyri all netted for Morocco in the Ivorian coastal city of San-Pedro, while Tanzania had Novatus Miroshi sent off.

Although an African powerhouse for decades, Morocco are seeking only a second Cup of Nations title, 48 years after lifting the trophy in Ethiopia.

Morocco sprang to international prominence just over a year ago in Qatar when they became the first ever African World Cup semi-finalists, eliminating Spain and Portugal along the way.

Wednesday’s victory over Group F outsiders Tanzania was anticipated as Morocco are ranked 13th in the world, 108 places above the Taifa Stars.

Morocco began with seven of the team that started in the 2-0 World Cup semi-final loss to France in Qatar. There were three La Liga players, two each from the Premier League and Ligue 1 and two with Saudi Pro League sides.

This contrasted sharply with Tanzania, whose line-up included Tarryn Allarakhia from English fifth-tier outfit Wealdstone.

The winger struggled in sweltering conditions and was replaced after 38 minutes, by which time Morocco were already ahead.

Hakim Ziyech, on loan to Galatasaray from Chelsea, lifted a free-kick over the defensive wall and when goalkeeper Aisha Manula failed to grasp it, Saiss converted the loose ball.

Tanzanian hopes of finding an equaliser suffered a huge blow with 20 minutes remaining when Miroshi fouled Ounahi and was sent off for a second booking.

‘On a mission’

Ounahi rounded off a fine move to make it 2-0 on 77 minutes, and the scoring was complete shortly after when En-Nesyri converted a low cross for a goal that was confirmed as onside following a VAR check.

“We’re focused, we’re on a mission here, and we have a status to live up to,” admitted Morocco coach Walid Regragui.

“People are waiting for us to deliver, but we are keeping our feet on the ground and we respected Tanzania in this game.”

The spoils were shared in the second match of the day later on in the same group, played at the same stadium named after deceased Ivorian star Laurent Pokou.

Kings Kangwa lobbed Zambia into the lead midway through the first half after Congolese goalkeeper Lionel Mpasi came racing out of his area and could not get back into position in time.

But Yoane Wissa, who has four goals in the English Premier League this season for Brentford, converted Cedric Bakambu’s low centre to make it 1-1 before the half-hour mark, and that was how it finished.

Congo thought they had won a penalty just after the hour mark when the Ethiopian referee ruled that Tandi Mwape had blocked Arthur Masuaku’s cross with his arm.

However, the decision was correctly overturned following a review, with the official able to see that Mwape had made the block with his chest.

Zambia, coached by Avram Grant, were making their comeback after missing the last three editions of the AFCON and were looking for their first win at the tournament since lifting the trophy against the odds in 2012.

All teams at the Cup of Nations have now played once, and the action continues on Thursday with a triple-header of matches in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s economic capital.

Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau meet at the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium at 1400 GMT before Group A rivals Nigeria and hosts Ivory Coast face off in a heavyweight clash.

That will be followed later by the Group B clash at the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium between Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, the record seven-time African champions, and a Ghana side reeling after losing their opening match to Cape Verde.