Afcon 2023: Morocco pushed to the limit in feisty draw with DR Congo

Atlas Lions hang on to clinch point in tournament where it increasingly looks like there are no easy games

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The warnings had been abundant in the first nine days of the Africa Cup of Nations. There really are very few lightweights left on the continent. Almost everybody who has overcome the long miles of travel and awkward acclimatisation to make the last 24 of the new, expanded format has enough competitive nous to feel they belong.

The upstarts have made the running. Cape Verde reached the second round before anybody else, victors over Ghana on matchday one. Mozambique were leading Egypt until into stoppage time. Namibia have recorded a historic first win at a finals.

Some of older warnings are also being heard - about how a regional hierarchy still governs, depending on where Afcon is staged. Tradition has it that, more often that not, to travel down from the north to an Afcon hosted in the sub-Saharan region is to add an impossibly heavy burden to the sum of challenges facing a potential winner.

It cuts both ways. In the 30 years since Nigeria lifted the 1994 title in Tunisia, the pattern of there being champions from west or southern Africa when the hosts are sub-Saharan and winners only from the Mena countries when the staging country is from the Mediterranean region has been broken only by one country. That was the remarkable, dynastic Egypt who claimed four Afcons in the space of 12 years, including the victories in 1998, in Burkina Faso; 2008, in Ghana; and 2010, in Angola.

Nobody since has so much as hinted at a sequence like that. But then no Afcon contender had entered a Cup of Nations finals with quite such a fresh endorsement of tournament expertise as the current Morocco, World Cup semi-finalists 13 months ago.

But yesterday Morocco too learned that the coming weeks will test them as intensely as anything in their first five matches at Qatar 2022 did. They were held to a 1-1 draw by DR Congo in San Pedro, and can feel blessed at having claimed a point from a game where momentum turned against them through its final hour and which ended in fiery confrontations on the pitch between rival players and coaches.

Morocco had already watched Egypt stutter to two draws in their first two matches, and spent Saturday being kept up to date with Tunisia’s difficulties in clinging to a first point of the group stage having fallen behind against Mali, and Algeria’s in salvaging their second draw so far only thanks to a stoppage-time equaliser against Burkina Faso.

The best response to the spread of similar uncertainty in the Moroccan ranks? An emphatic early lead against DR Congo. Achraf Hakimi’s smart volley, set up by Hakim Ziyech’s corner, looked like a signpost to the knockout phase at maximum efficiency and speed, following the 3-0 win in the Atlas Lions’ opening group game against Tanzania.

But Hakimi’s thumping goal would not be the stimulus for another dismantling of sub-Saharan opposition. Far from it. First, Morocco were relieved to have gone into half-time with their lead still intact, a careless handball in his own penalty area by Azzedine Ounahi conceding a penalty. Cedric Bakumbu directed the spot-kick against Yassine Bounou’s right-hand post.

Morocco were rattled, the stop-start rhythm of a baking hot afternoon’s work and Congo’s physical aggression and speed on the break causing a series of alarms and swinging the pendulum decisively in favour of DR Congo, who through the second half created the more menacing chances, equalised and came close to snatching all three points.

The gratifying aspect of it all, beyond the point that almost certainly safeguards Morocco’s place in the last 16 is that the virtues that head coach Walid Regragui cultivated so successfully at the World Cup were put under a significant stress-test. They passed it.

Morocco had to keep their shape against opponents confident on the ball, just as Morocco were required to do for significant periods when they overcame Belgium, Spain and Portugal in Qatar. Against DR Congo, there were stretched, authoritative inventions by Romain Saiss, a brilliant recovering tackle by Nayef Aguerd to stymie a Fiston Mayele counter-attack.

There was a notably well-timed tackle by Ziyech, appreciative of the fact that his role demands not only the eye-of-the-needle pass or strike from distance, eyes set forward but a vigilance of the space behind him. Ziyech finished the game with a sore ankle and a yellow card, one marker of the rising temperature of the contest, a feistiness that spilled over into pushing and shoving between players and coaching staff from both teams after the final whistle.

They were pleased to be out of the battle, that no more of their matches will be played under an early afternoon heat like yesterday’s and that, more than likely, their four points from their two games will keep them into the knockout stage in San Pedro, the restful coastal city more than 200 miles west of Abidjan.

Morocco above all felt blessed that a penalty had been missed and that, immediately after Silas Katompa had equalised for DR Congo, another nimble move, piercing Morocco’s left flank in the same way as in the lead-up to Silas’s goal, did not lead to a second. If they are to win this Afcon, defy the regional jinx and their own 48-year gap since their last triumph, Morocco know they will not do so at a cruise.

Updated: January 21, 2024, 6:41 PM