Things are starting to hot up over in Gabon, while many of us are still recovering from the shock exits of hosts Gabon, Algeria and reigning champions Ivory Coast, the quarter-finals get underway. The final tie of the round sees a North-African derby between Egypt and Morocco, two sides that will enter the game full of confidence off the back of wins in their final group games.
Egypt reached this stage courtesy of topping Group D. They drew 0-0 with Mali in their opener but went on to edge out Uganda 1-0 in their following match. Heading into the final match, they sat two points adrift of Ghana who had won both of their first two matches. The Black Stars were much fancied to go on and win the group but the Pharaohs had different ideas and thanks to Mohamed Salah’s excellent free kick, they took the win and top spot. They did only score two goals but were miserly in defence and are yet to concede in this year’s tournament, Morocco will do well to break them down.
As for their opponents, Morocco went into the tournament with high expectations. They were being led by twice champion as well as reigning champion, thanks to his exploits with Ivory Coast in 2015, Hervé Renard. However, they got off to a difficult start and were defeated by 10-man DR Congo in their opening match. Considering this defeat and the presence of African giants Ivory Coast in the group, Morocco’s qualification prospects look bleak. They turned it around though by beating Togo 3-1 in their second match before coming up against Renard’s old side. Renard is held in high esteem by the Ivorians as he was the man that finally led their golden generation to the Africa Cup of Nations title last time out but there was no room for sentiment here and thanks to Rachid Alioui’s counter attack goal, Renard ensured his old side put up the worst possible defence and Morocco went through as Group C runners-up.
Egypt still face a goalkeeping crisis, 44-year-old Essam El Hadary is the only fit goalkeeper in the squad due to injuries to Ahmed El-Shenawy, who started the first match but was forced off with a hamstring tear after just 25 minutes, and Sherif Ekramy, who picked up a hamstring strain in training. Ekramy is undergoing intensive treatment in the desperate attempt to give Egypt a fit back-up but even if he is passed fit to play, will seriously lack fitness if called upon. Elsewhere, there will be a late fitness test for left-back Mohamed Shafy, who was ruled out of the Ghana match after picking up an injury against Uganda. This gave Hull City’s Ahmed Elmohamady his first run-out of the tournament in the last match and expect him to deputise again if Shafy is not passed fit.
Morocco are able to name a much more settled side as they still have the whole of their 23-man squad to choose from. The good news for the Atlas Lions is that Medhi Benatia seems to be over his recent injury problems and is finally getting a run of games. He has been crucial to the 5-3-2 system Hervé Renard has been operating with and so has Wolves centre-back Romain Saiss. A name sadly linked brought to prominence by the Jonjo Shelvey racial abuse scandal. Saiss has put in some dominant defensive displays so far and has even chipped in with a goal against Togo to put his side 2-1 up. Don’t expect Morocco to stray from the tactic that served them so well against the Ivory Coast.
Egypt- Mo Salah
A name familiar to English fans from his time at Chelsea but his performances there are in no way a reflection of his true ability. The pacy winger joined Roma permanently in 2016 and is proving to be a real star in Italy. He already has eight goals and four assists to his name this season and is a big miss while he is away in Gabon. He is vital for his country’s chances as he has already proven with his goal against Ghana. At the age of just 24, he has an incredible record for his country of 30 goals in 50 appearances and if Egpyt are to continue to prioritise defence as much as they did in the group stage, Salah’s attacking quality will be vital when they do go forwards.
Morocco- Youssef En-Nesyri
The Moroccan striker is only 19-years-old but already there are signs that he has a big future in the game. After impressing in pre-season for Spanish side Malaga, by scoring six goals, he was offered a new contract extension until 2020. His first goal for the club came in September, a winner against Eibar and to date he has featured in ten of the clubs 19 league matches as well as both Copa del Rey ties against Córdoba. He is making a name for himself in Spain and is beginning to do the same on the international stage. He didn’t start the opener but has been crucial in Morocco’s qualification. He scored the goal that made the game safe against Togo from outside the box and set up Alioui’s perfect whipped finish against Ivory Coast. Egypt will have to be on their guard when he picks up the ball.
Although this is a derby, a game where we expect from to go out of the window, the meetings between these two sides have historically been terribly one-sided. In their 26 meetings, Egypt have just two wins to their name, the last of those coming in 1986, however, it was the Africa Cup of Nations semi-final and Egypt would go on to lift the title against Cameroon while Morocco would have to settle for fourth place. There have been 11 draws and Morocco have an impressive 13 wins.
The last meeting between the two sides came in 2006 in the Africa Cup of Nations group stage. The two teams could not be separated and the game finished 0-0. A result that was good enough to see Egypt win the group and three games later lift the trophy for the fifth time. While Morocco bowed out at the group stage without scoring a single goal.
History certainly suggests Morocco have the advantage but when these two have met in this competition before, it has usually been good news for Egypt. As the last meeting was more than 10 years ago, it is unlikely that historical form will play much of a factor, however, Egypt may well be determined to improve their record against their strong North-African rivals.
Egypt Head Coach Héctor Cúper was not entirely pleased with his side’s performance against Ghana. However, appreciated the fact they got the job done.
“I am not as happy with the performance as I would like but I think given who we were up against I have to be satisfied.”
Before going on to emphasise the need for preparation to beat Morocco and the fact his side has big ambitions in this tournament.
“We will have a bit of a breather now, rest a bit, and then start thinking about Morocco. Our ambition is very high and we are going to fight to keep progressing and reach the final stages.”
Hervé Renard in the Morocco camp was much more cagey, however. Straight after his side’s victory over the Ivory Coast, he played down their chances. He insisted:
“We are not favourites to win the tournament, there are better teams than us. But we are still in it. I feel very good and give congratulations to the players. They did very well tactically, they didn’t do very well technically – but the pitch is very difficult.”
“Now a new competition begins with the knockout matches, and we will need a winning mentality.”
I don’t expect to see many goals in this one, in fact, just the one could settle it. I expect to see a tight and cagey match with both sides choosing very much to set up with defence as the first priority in the group stage. For me, that little bit of Herve Renard magic will carry Morocco through by a scoreline of 1-0.
Do you agree with my predictions? What do you think the score will be? Let us know on Twitter @OfficialTFF.
Egypt vs Morocco, Sunday 29th January, Live on British Eurosport 1, coverage starts from 6:45pm, Kick-off at 7:00pm GMT at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Port-Gentil