Atlas Lions tipped to roar to AFCON success

After becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, Morocco are tipped to banish their AFCON demons in Ivory Coast and lift their first title since almost 50 years.

Expectation can do strange things to professional teams. It can galvanise a group of players’ resolve and push them the achieve incredible things. Conversely, the weight of a nation’s expectations can prove too much and scupper a team’s chances at success. Case in point? Look at the Springboks’ 2023 Rugby World Cup triumph and England’s ‘Golden Generation’ from 2000s. Both were forced to deal with feverish levels of expectation back home from both fans and media.

For the Springboks, it was a case of circling the wagons and grinding out an astonishing set of results that would culminate in Siya Kolisi holding the Webb Ellis Cup aloft in the Paris rain on.

England’s ‘Golden Generation’ meanwhile, endured a disastrous Euro 2008 qualification run in which Steve McClaren earned the moniker “Wally with a Brolly”. This after he watched on helplessly, beneath his FA-branded umbrella, while England suffered a 3-2 defeat against Croatia at Wembley. The result meant that England would miss out on qualification to a major tournament since the 1994 World Cup. This car crash was bookended by disappointing Round of 16 exits from the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. 

Morocco’s Atlas Lions are red-hot favourites coming into the Africa Cup of Nations and will either sink à la England or go all the way like the Springboks. They will be required to guard against two things: complacency and the added incentive that other teams will have to get one over the big dogs. Walid Regragui’s chrages been drawn in Group F alongside DR Congo, Tanzania and Zambia, all games that you’d expect them to win with minimal fuss.

Of course, we’re talking about a side that became the first from the Continent to reach the World Cup semi-finals, beating the likes of Spain and Portugal in the knockouts. They also topped their group which featured Belgium, Croatia and Canada. Further success followed post-World Cup as they beat a stacked Brazilian side 2-1 in a March friendly last year.

There have been a few slips since then, however. A surprise defeat against South Africa and draws against Cape Verde, Peru and Ivory Coast don’t make for great reading. That said, they’re rock-solid at the back with Bono – now a cult hero in the mould of Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa following his heroics in Qatar – will keep goal behind a back four of Achraf Hakimi, Nayef Aguerd, Romain Saïss and Noussair Mazraoui (easily the best back four at AFCON). In turn, they’re shielded well by the industrious Sofyan Amrabat whose performances at Manchester United have caught the eye.

Regragui has a truly world-class side at his disposal and really should make the final here at the very least. They will need to remain patient as they attempt to break sides down who will be more than happy to sit back and frustrate. With limited chances, Morocco’s forwards will need to be at their ruthless best.

And therein lies the biggest worry for the North Africans. Hakim Ziyech has struggled with fitness this term, missing plenty of games for Galatasaray with foot and hamstring issues. Former Southampton forward Sofiane Boufal, who scored that goal for the Saints against West Brom (a strike that was voted Southampton’s goal of the decade) has also missed plenty of football of late with Qatari outfit Al-Rayyan.

There’s also the enigma Youssef En-Nesyri. A cult hero in Morocco, his patchy performances in front of goal are a concern, with his last strike for the national side coming back in the World Cup against Portugal.

You’d still expect this side to overcome these issues to lift their first Africa Cup of Nations in 48 years. They were also the first foreign side to arrive in Ivory Coast, touching down at Felix Houphouet Boigny Airport on Sunday afternoon as they look to finalise their preparation before their tournament opener against Tanzania on 17 January.

6/1 is a cracking price. Get on!

Written by: Jason Dewey