Egypt & Morocco nourished similar ambitions before the start of the African showpiece. Egypt, as hosts & led by Mohamed Salah, had no other choice than winning the African Grail while Morocco, coached by AFCON specialist Hervé Renard & with one of their best generations were logically targeting their second star.
Both started their campaign with difficulty. The Pharaohs managed to beat the Warriors of Zimbabwe in the tournament’s curtain-raiser thanks to a lone goal from Mahmoud Trezeguet before the break but conceded too much space & chances to a team like Zimbabwe. Egypt pocketed the three points but questions were already raised.
On their side, Morocco picked a hard but deserved over Namibia through a late own goal. Morocco unlike their North African neighbours dominated their game from head to toes but failed to break down a brave Namibian bus until a beautiful own goal ensuring Morocco the full mark.
In matchday 2, the giants got on deck with one goal in mind: sealing their qualification. Egypt were up on task against DR Congo. Defensively exposed & saved by their posts many times, the record winners still managed to beat DR Congo through El Mohamady & Mohamed Salah who killed the game before half time. Without impressing again, Egypt were qualified for the next round of their AFCON.
Unlike the hosts, Morocco were facing a tougher challenge: eternal favourites Ivory Coast & its armada of players kicking the ball in the finest European leagues. And again, unlike their neighbours, Morocco offered what was their best performance of the tournament. Asphyxiating the Ivorian armada in a very high-tempo game, The Atlas Lions conceded very few chances & marched on the Elephants thanks to the old midfield guard El Ahmadi-Boussoufa. Domination rewarded through a wonderful goal scored by Leganes forward En Neysri. The attacker finished a formidable run from Amrabat who dribbled past the cities of Abidjan & Yamoussoukro to put his teammate in an easy position and give Morocco a deserved lead. Hervé Renard’s men will miss a huge number of chances to inflict Ivory Coast a historic defeat but will stay firm to collect the three points after offering one the most complete performances of the group stages.
Group stages closing games were in the same vein for the two aspiring winners. Egypt was put in difficulty again but were saved by Elmohamady & Salah’s brilliance. A tame performance concluding a campaign in which the Pharaohs were put in difficulty either on or off the pitch (i.e Wardagate) but yet managed to go through with a 100% record without conceding.
24 hours later, Morocco dominated South Africa and were rewarded the three points thanks to a late goal. With this deserved win the 1976 champions killed two birds with one stone as they topped the group & recorded their first-ever official win over the Bafana Bafana.
Courtesy of their top spots Egypt & Morocco were ensured a relatively easy task on cards. Both had to face two of the least mediocre third-placed teams, South Africa & Benin.
Pushed by 75 000 fans, Egypt opened the round of the 16. Against a compact & quick in transition South Africa, the hosts created two crucial chances but failed to convert them through the opener’s hero Trezeguet. The subpar Egypt failed to create more against a compact South African block which did everything well to frustrate, threaten through their fast transitions & keep at bay Salah & co.
The sucker punch will come in the 86th minute when a speedy South African transition silenced the 75 000 fans present in the stadium. Egypt was frozen & eliminated miserably of its own tournament, a tournament promised to them.
A day earlier Morocco knew the same fate as their neighbours. The Atlas Lions, arch-favourites against a team which was yet to win a single AFCON game were frustrated by Benin. Less quick in transition than their South African counterparts, Benin were as organised & defensive. An ultra-defensive plan embodied perfectly by Stéphane Sessegnon, a playmaker with kilos of skills who had very defensive duties during the tournament. The Squirrels caught Morocco napping & punished them on a corner through Adilehou. With their back against the wall, Morocco had to react. Hervé Renard’s men pushed & finally found a crack in the Beninese fortress at the 75th minute through En-Neysri. Morocco were back in the game. Pressure growing on Benin’s goal, the Moroccans almost seen the light in the last seconds. Hakimi, tackled down by Sessegnon, was awarded a deserved penalty to give Morocco a chance to take them out of the Beninese trap. Hakim Ziyech took his responsibilities & sent the match-winning penalty on Allagbé’s post. A penalty at the image of his AFCON, bland & very flat.
Extra time it was. Morocco unable to break a heroic Benin entered those two halves with much pressure. Helped by the red card given to Khaled Adenon, the Lions created more chances but yet failed to find Allagbé’s net. Benin’s plan to take the game to penalties worked perfectly and the pressure was now mounting on Renard’s men.
Boufal & En-Neysri penalties were the last straw on the Atlas Lions’ back. The relatively fresh at international level players failed to convert their penalties & dashed Morocco’s high hopes.
Arriving at AFCON with high hopes, Egypt & Morocco completely failed in their mission to bring the African grail home. A lackluster Egypt, saved by individual brilliance were eliminated in their first real test. Morocco on their side, after impressing in group stages fell in the Beninese trap, unable to really put them to the sword & with the incredible absence of character of leaders like Benatia, Belhanda, Ziyech and Da Costa.
A rebuilding process will be needed for both ageing squads after what have been two of the most humiliating exits of both countries’ rich footballing histories.