There were fireworks on and off the pitch as Morocco made a dramatic return to the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations. They marked the occasion with a win against debutants Burkina Faso.
The opening ceremony featured speeches from CAF President Patrice Motsepe, as well as FIFA President Gianni Infantino. They were followed up by a colourful performance from Moroccan musician Manal Benchlika, backed by an array of fire machines and fireworks.
Atlas Lionesses return in style
Hosts Morocco were making their return to the African stage after 22 year hiatus. Despite their absence, they see themselves as outside favourites and they backed up their credentials with a complete performance.
Coached by two-time UEFA Champions League winner Reynald Pedros, the Atlas Lionesses showed their quality, dominating the ball. With a mobile target upfront in the shape of Spurs forward Rosella Ayane, they were able to stretch the Burkinabes.
Right-winger Fatima Tagnaout showed her quality as time and time again she found space and created chances.
But for all their creativity in midfield, the Moroccans had to rely on a set-piece to take the lead. Captain Ghizlane Chebbak had previously put a free-kick narrowly over but on her second attempt, she squeezed her shot past Mariam Outarra.
The home side, buoyed on by more than 30,000 Moroccans, continued to dominate the ball while struggling to create chances in open play. Fortunately, in Chebbak, they have superb dead-ball specialist.
The central midfielder had another free-kick well saved and could have had a number of assists if her teammates put away her set piece chances.
Burkina Faso certainly didn’t put up a huge test against Pedros’ side, but he will be disappointed his team was unable to kill the game.
They were nearly punished for their profligacy as in a nervy final 15 minutes. The Stallions created a number of chances of their own including a glorious chance for Limata Nikiema.
The substitute was played through on goal, but was denied by keeper Khadija Er-Rmichi. She then saved the follow up chance from Balkissa Sawadogo.
A new Morocco
There is a lot of pressure on the Moroccans to go far in the tournament. However, it’s easy to forget that this was only their second ever victory in the competition.
The Atlas Lionesses have undergone a transformation in the last seven years, rising from mediocrity to the forefront of African women’s football.
Since the last WAFCON in 2018, they have established two tiers of fully professional leagues. They are the only African nation to do so.
They have invested millions into the women’s game from grassroots, all the way to the national side. Their ambition is demonstrated by the acquisition of Pedros, as well as attracting players like Rosella Ayane to change her allegiance from England to Morocco.
However, they will have to be more clinical if they want to compete with stronger sides like Nigeria and South Africa. If there is anything to take away from the first match, it is that even if they play poorly, with Chebbak’s quality they will always carry a goal threat.
Stallions stumble on debut
For Burkina Faso, the 1-0 loss flatters the debutants, who in truth were heavily outclassed. But in a group without the traditional heavyweights, they will fancy themselves to improve in their matches against Uganda and Senegal.
Pascal Sawadogo’s side showed glimpses of what they can offer going forward. Despite being an isolated figure upfront, forward Adama Congo showed her quality in holding up the ball and pressing.
On the odd occasion where they were able to deliver to star player Juliette Nana, she looked a threat. The right-winger comes off a 22 league goal season with Belarusian side Neman Grodno and was Burkina Faso’s creative force going forward.
Er-Rmichi, Redouani, Nesryne, Nakkach, CHebbak, Amani, Tagnaout, El Hal, Saoud, Mrabet, Ayane
Substitutes: Hassani, Seghir
M. Ouatarra, Nako, Sedogo, Congo, Belem, R. Sawadogo, B. Sawadogo, Millogo, Diamilatou, Rouamba, Nana
Substitutes: Traore, Koudougou, Nikiema, Kabre