Under charismatic coach/manager Eric Gerets, the Lions of the Atlas have found the chemistry and the glue to create a strong squad at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. The 2012 edition of the Moroccan national team is giving hope to a nation that has not seen a continental title since 1976.
The Belgian architect, Gerets, has travelled all of Europe to build this team since taking over in 2010. Scouring for eligible Moroccan players has been a success with the likes of Youssef Al Arabi (Al Hilal) and Adel Taarabt (Queens Park Rangers) that have brought added value and depth to a very talented team. Gerets was also able to bring unity in a team known for clans within the group, unfortunately not something new in African teams. Bringing back a sense of professionalism was the clinching factor to give Gerets credibility towards the players and the Federation.
In Group C, Morocco will play co-hosts Gabon, newcomer Niger and North African rivals Tunisia. The battle for first place in the group should be between Morocco and Tunisia and both teams play each other in their first game. The result of that game could probably decide who will finish top of the group unless that a tie game make things more complicated having to play co-host Gabon.
What better way to start off the Africa Cup of Nations with a tense and difficult game against Tunisia, The Eagles of Carthage. But no fear for Morocco as they will come in the tournament with an offensive armada with the likes of Marouane Chamakh (Arsenal) and Youssouf Hadji (Stade Rennais), who will be helped by offensive midfielders Younes Belhanda (Montpellier) and Mbark Boussoufa (Anzhi Makhachkala).
With a squad filled with youth and experience, Morocco presents a balanced team that loves to go forward and have control of the ball, a distinct mark of Gerets. A mobile but physical central defence has the option of playing Mehdi Benatia (Udinese), El Kaoutari (Montpellier) and El Kaddouri (Celtic Glascow) in the center of defense. The midfield will be soldiered by Houcine Kharja (Fiorentina) who is an important piece of the puzzle as the first defender and with his ability for excellent passing and ball distribution. At his side, Belhanda and Boussoufa will be responsible of the creative department and both can help Kharja to bolster the middle of the pitch and enhacing the ball distribution.
Passing and speed are key factors for Gerets who will rely on speedy, technical wingers like Taarabt and Oussama Assaidi (Heerenveen) that will fight for a starting spot as one winger spot is already held by Youssouf Hadji. The tip of the attack will have Chamakh taking on the goal scoring responsibility. With little playing time at Arsenal, Chamakh will be looking to gain some confidence with more playing time with the national team. His physical and athletic abilities will be important in a rugged, physical tournament like the Africa Cup of Nations.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-3-3)
GK Nadir Lamyaghri , LB Badr El Kaddouri, CB Mehdi Benatia, CB Abdelhamid El Kaoutari, RBMichael Basser, CM Houcine Kharja CM Younes Belhanda CM Mbark Boussoufa, LF Youssouf Hadji, RF Oussama Assaidi or Adel Taarabt, CF Marouane Chamakh
Younes Belhanda: This team is deep in midfield and in attack with experience, talent and youth. This combination is perfectly represented by the Montpellier midfielder, Younes Belhanda. The official playmaker at his club and for the national team, he possesses technical finesse, pinpoint passing and remarkable vision. Able to score goals, he is an unselfish player who is also an excellent passer, feeding his team-mates with surgical precision. Not a dazzling dribbler, his play-making abilities help him control the tempo of the game for Morocco, touching the ball a lot, giving it back as much with little ball loss. A box to box midfielder, he is able to defend correctly to help out the defensive sector of the team making him a complete midfielder and the centre piece of his team, at only 21 year-old.
Dark horse for the title: I will go on a limb and predict that Morocco will become African champions after a 36-year drought. It may be a cliché, but if all the key players play to their expected potential, the Atlas Lions have nothing to fear from the Ivory Coast and Ghana. This does not make Morocco invincible, but my quiet favourite in this tournament.