Since winning the Cup of Nations on their first attempt, as hosts in 1996, South Africa have been seeking for that elusive second win with diminishing returns. Runners-up in 1998, third in 2000, the furthest they have got since just after the turn of the century is the quarter-finals, and the last time the tournament was played they didn’t even qualify. For Bafana Bafana’s involvement in this year’s competition to go on beyond this week, they need a win here – but it won’t come easy in what will be a tough battle.
Morocco have won their first two games, each by a 1-0 margin, and sit atop the group. A win here will secure first place and an easier quarter-final. They can call upon experienced veterans such as defender Medhi Benatia, and have one of the tournament’s standout attacking players in Ajax’s gifted Hakim Ziyech. On paper, this should be a straightforward outing for the Atlas Lions but, as Madagascar’s surprising first place in Group C shows us, this is a tournament with the capacity for shocks.
South Africa vs Morocco Prediction: South Africa 0-1 Morocco
This is not a vintage South African line-up. Those who watched them in the late 90s will remember names like Benni McCarthy, Mark Fish, Lucas Radebe and Quinton Fortune, but the present squad features just six players operating outside the South African Premier League – and of those names, few are playing at the top level. There are clearly talented players there, but the simple truth is that Morocco are at a more advanced stage of the process when it comes to developing a competition-ready squad and XI. Although already assured of a last-16 spot, they have reason to play for a win here, as it would assure them a simpler path in the knockout stages.
Our recommended tip: Draw/Morocco
This Moroccan side has secured its progress by virtue of winning tight games – doing just enough against Cote d’Ivoire in the last match, and profiting from a last-minute winner against Namibia in their opening game. They’re yet to truly cut loose, and another edgy game is not unlikely here, considering that a draw suits them more than it does their opponents. With that said, the greater quality in their side should make itself evident over 90 minutes, and we’d back them to keep Bafana at arms’ length for the first half before making sure in the second. Paddy Power has 7/2 (4.50) on them doing precisely this, and it’s a bet worth taking.
The last time these sides met competitively was in the group stage of the 2013 Cup of Nations, hosted in South Africa. A hard-fought game saw Morocco take the lead on ten minutes through El-Adoua’s goal, but with eighteen minutes left to play the hosts equalised, Mahlanga getting on the scoresheet. There was still time for the Lions to retake the lead through Hafidi but, with five minutes left on the clock, Bafana equalised again, Siyabonga Sangweni giving them a share of the points; that wasn’t enough to secure them passage to the next round, and it wouldn’t be enough today.
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Players to watch: Percy Tau & Hakim Ziyech
If South Africa are to take anything from this game, they’ll need to rely on a strong showing from their best players, and the man with the best chance of making an impression is Percy Tau. Contracted to Brighton, Tau spent the past season on loan at Union SG in Belgium, where he was voted the club’s Player of the Season as well as being recognised among the best players in the Belgian second tier. If Tau can get on the ball in the right areas, he could be the one to cut open the Moroccan defence and secure an unlikely win.
For an idea of how talented Ziyech is consider that the Netherlands, the country of his birth, reached a moment of national crisis when he rejected the chance to play for Oranje in favour of representing Morocco. Seen by many as the most talented player in the Dutch Eredivisie (against some strong competition), he’d be an asset to any side. Great dribbling ability, the nous to pick the right pass and with 14 goals from his 25 international appearances, Ziyech is a star on a global level – and this tournament is his best chance yet to prove that.