Morocco spoilt for choice despite frustrating CHAN opener
Morocco won their African Nations Championship opener against Mauritania 4-0 on Saturday, and while the scoreline doesn't flatter the hosts, it doesn't tell the story of a frustrating encounter.
The Atlas Lions were made to wait until the 66th minute before making the breakthrough, as a combination of profligate finishing, stubborn defending and heroic goalkeeper kept them at bay and ensured for a testing opening hour.
Indeed, the Casablanca crowd's patience had begun to wear thin by the time that Ayoub El Kaarbi broke the deadlock with a calm finish after breaking the visitors' offside trap, as the Atlas Lions appeared to lose the impetus that characterised the opening 15 minutes.
For the first quarter of an hour and the last 25 minutes, however, this contest was a vivid display of the North Africans' wealth of offensive options-a plethora of talents who are primed to spearhead their campaign to win a maiden CHAN title.
El Kaabi, who ended the match with two goals, was their primary threat.
His pace, certainly during the opening stages before Mauritania dropped much deeper, caused persistent troubles for the backline, with the hosts regularly seeking to feed him through with balls over the top.
The heroic Souleymane Brahim in the Mauritanian goal had to be alert to come out and smother El Kaabi in the seventh minute, while he also sent a fizzing low shot just wide after the half-hour mark as Mauritania sought to limit the space between the lines.
The quality of his finishing for the opener ought to also strike fear into the hearts of opposition goalkeepers, and the RS Berkane man also deserves credit for his positioning when he added Morocco's third in the 80th minute.
There was evidence here, too, that as well as having the pace to turn a defender or get in behind, he's a player who will compliment his international teammates by bringing others into play or creating space with intelligent movement off the ball.
While Zakaria Hadraf, who started on the right before switching flanks, was the quieter of the two widemen, he sent in a series of teasing crosses and demonstrated an understanding with left-back and Raja Casablanca teammate Abdeljalil Jbira.
Indeed, it was when Hadraf moved over to the left and began to cut inside onto his right foot that Jbira at the license - and space - to push on and create an overlap in wide areas. Expect this to be a valuable tool for the Atlas Lions moving forward, when up against stern defensive units.
In the 59th minute, it was Hadraf who forged the best opening to that point when he picked out El Kaabi with a cut back from the left, only for the latter to slip on the wet surface at the crucial moment.
Ismail El Haddad, on the opposite flank, was a key player during Wydad Casablanca's domestic and continental double last term, and demonstrated his capacity both for creation and execution as Mauritania tired.
First there was the quick-thinking assist for El Kaabi's opener - a delicious flicked ball that send the RSB forward beyond the Mauritanian defence - and then there was his goal, the finish that put the contest beyond the minnows, as his left-footed snapshot evaded Souleymane.
The trio's performance justified - to an extend - Jemaal Sellami's decision to start Wydad heroes and potential tournament MVPs Achraf Bencharki and Walid El Karti on the bench.
The duo, the nemeses of some of the continent's best defences during the CAF Champions League, will surely be introduced to the starting lineup before too long, and represent that strength in depth and wealth of options that few of Morocco's tournament rivals can really rival.
Bencharki marked his cameo with Morocco's fourth, demonstrating his technical prowess by flummoxing the tiring Mauritanian defence, and finishing cooly from a tight angle.
The true creative inspiration of these competition favourites isn't, however, the much coveted Bencharki or the aforementioned front three.
Instead, the Lions' star man on Saturday was central playmaker Abdelilah Hafidi of Raja, whose scintillating display suggested that he's primed to make up for lost time after an ineffectual showing at the CHAN two years ago.
Here, he was a buzzing hive of creative influence, bright and inventive from the off and the central figure behind much of Morocco's early menace.
Notably, at one point, Hadraf and right-back Mohammed Nahiri got in each other's way as they both sought to reach a delicious Hafidi through ball first.
Later, the pint-sized playmaker won a free kick just outside the box after being brought down, only for Nahiri to slam the resulting set piece over.
After seeing how Mauritania were shredded during the latter stages of Saturday's opener, expect Guinea and Sudan to approach their final group games with apprehension, with both specifically seeking to deny Hafidi space.
This will be the attacking midfielder's real test; whether he can repeat this level of output against stronger defensive units who have studied his effectiveness.
Morocco's depth of attacking options should guarantee that they're a threat against the tournament's best defences, but Hafidi's creative inspiration could make the difference as the obstacles become greater for the hosts.
Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.