Morocco and South Africa played out a tense encounter in the final Group D match at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) on Monday evening. Morocco’s late winner meant they topped the group and South Africa’s three-point tally saw them finish in third place and hoping for other results to go their way in order to qualify for the Round of 16.
Stuart Baxter made three changes to his Bafana Bafana side. Ronwen Williams returned with Darren Keet back on the bench as the rotation of his goalkeepers continued. In midfield, Kamohelo Mokotjo was recalled in place of 34-year-old Hlompho Kekana who was only on the bench, and Thulani Serero came in for Sibusiso Vilakazi in the number ten role.
Morocco’s coach, Herve Renard also made three changes with qualification already secured. In goal, Yassine Bounou was rested, with Munir Mohamedi coming in. In defence, both Nabil Dirar and Mehdi Benatia were given a breather as Noussair Mazraoui and Manuel da Costa started at right back and centre back respectively.
WIDE OVERLAPS VS BAFANA BUILD-UP
Early on, South Africa continued with their recently-adopted attempts to build up from the back, with Williams looking to find his centre backs, with both fullbacks in Thami Mkhize and Sifiso Hlanti expected to push high up.
Percy Tau initially started on the right flank, but he was given some license to move inside with Thulani Serero interchanging roles with him. There was some nice quick passing in midfield with Bongani Zungu’s calmness under pressure and Serero staying close to Tau to try to link up, but it didn’t progress past the middle third.
Morocco were very compact and if any gaps appeared, they were quick to commit shrewd tactical fouls. South Africa were funnelled wide and then closed down aggressively in groups. One great example saw five players squeeze over to South Africa’s right to press collectively. There were many other good pieces of closing down too to rob Bafana or force giveaways in their own half.
On the ball, Morocco were incredibly fluid in a 4-1-4-1 shape. Karim El Ahmadi sat in front of the back four, whilst the four attacking midfielders were essentially four number tens. The width was provided by the fullbacks; Achraf Hakimi on the left and Mazraoui on the right. The latter often underlapped his Ajax Amsterdam teammate, Hakim Ziyech.
The left flank was a real problem for Bafana. Tau was not going to track Hakimi all the way back, so Morocco always had a simple out-ball to that flank. Nordin Amrabat initially started towards that flank and there was regularly a two versus one for Mkhize to deal with.
TAU AND AMRABAT SWITCH
Midway through the first half, Amrabat moved over to the right and further overloaded that flank, having a major influence on the game. He would make runs from inside-to-out behind Hlanti, and then deliver either a cross towards target man Youssef En-Nesyri or cutbacks towards Younes Belhanda or Mbark Boussoufa. No clear openings materialised but this spell of pressure did coincide with Tau moving over to the left wing. With three to four Morocco players linking up on that side, South Africa’s star attacker found himself as an auxiliary left back at times, a complete waste of his talent.
Morocco’s clearest opening though had come in the fifth minute as En-Nesyri was played through on goal but the offside flag was incorrectly raised. Bafana’s best chances were Tau firing wide from outside the box on a rare occasion in a central position; Mothiba had moved wide to be a target for a throw-in. Then in first-half injury time, Zungu robbed El Ahmadi, Serero picked up the loose ball and he had Mothiba in a great position but overhit his through ball to waste the opening.
The first period was a relatively uneventful affair, but Morocco had better communication at team level where pressing and attacking in groups was concerned. Once again, South Africa had shown little threat in wide areas, no real danger by running in-behind the backline, nor managed to get Tau into dangerous areas.
In the second half, Hakimi got even further forward than in the first half. First, he delivered a cross which En-Nesyri nodded wide under pressure. Then he cut inside after some great interplay on the left and struck the crossbar from a shot with his stronger right foot.
By this stage, South Africa were floundering. Zungu was visibly exhausted, Tau was pinned back into his own half and Williams had abandoned short passing and was looking for long kicks. There was no out-ball when Bafana were under pressure as Mothiba found himself bullied in the duels and he never looked to run into space nor draw free kicks.
Morroco had withdrawn El Ahmadi, at risk of suspension before the Round of 16, bringing on Youssef Ait Bennasser to take his place but it had no effect on the functioning of their midfield. One great killer pass from Amrabat sent En-Nesyri through on goal; he rounded Williams but shanked wide with his weaker right foot. Otherwise, Bafana were generally solid defensively with Serero playing much deeper to help Zungu.
VELDWIJK ON BUT MOROCCO NICK IT
Baxter eventually made the changes desperately needed as Mothiba, Themba Zwane and Zungu went off. Mamelodi Sundowns duo, Vilakazi and Kekana came on for the latter, whilst it was again the standard Lars Veldwijk for Mothiba alteration and the inevitable long-ball approach. Speedy options like Lebohang Maboe were ignored whilst the chance to properly park the bus with a third defensive midfield or extra defender were ignored.
When the winner eventually arrived in the 90th minute, it was a very poor goal to concede. With Morocco fairly satisfied with a draw, they only sent five men forward for a freekick. Despite South Africa having eight men in the box, Thulani Hlatshwayo’s poor header fell to Boussoufa and he fired past Williams.
This was a disappointing match without many good chances. Morocco were the better team though, with much better team shape, co-ordination when pressing and clever link-play in wide areas. Despite changing three of their back five, they were very solid defensively and always comfortable defending against Mothiba. For large spells, they could push both fullbacks forward and still have nothing to worry about with two men at the back.
South Africa simply lacked any ideas or quality and continue to lack the basics of tournament football attacking play: width in attack and an out-ball in the channels to relieve pressure. Percy Tau continues to be wasted in the wide areas, whilst Thembinkosi Lorch, the Player of the Season in South Africa, has played zero minutes in the tournament so far. Now the calculators come out to see if Bafana can benefit from the new Afcon format and sneak into the knockout stages.