In what is one of the most hotly anticipated African qualifiers of all time, Ivory Coast will face Morocco in Abidjan where only a win will do for the home team.
The game marks Ivory Coast first match in this qualifying campaign in the Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny after the stadium went through a process of renovation. Up to 7,000 Moroccan fans are expected in ‘Le Felicia’ after Royal Air Maroc lowered the price for the journey to help the travelling support.
Marc Wilmots’ side is aiming to make it to its fourth consecutive World Cup in a row but on Saturday evening they will be very much up against it versus a Morocco team that only needs a draw. and is yet to concede a goal after five games.
Eric Bailly misses out due to suspension, and Jean Seri through injury, but the return of Wilfried Zaha, missing from recent matches due to injury, should give the Elephants some belief, as is the experience of their veterans Salomon Kalou and Gervinho.
On paper all the ingredients are there, at least for one big push, with many of the AFCON 2015-winning players still around, but Wilmots has been unable to turn it into a well-cooked dish since taking over after AFCON, and now seems too little, too late, even if they are to make it to the World Cup against a well-drilled Morocco team.
Much of the defence constructed by Herve Renard remains in place, but they have looked ropier since his departure. Quality in an unsettled attack has come through individual brilliance rather than any sort of chemistry, and he has been unable to solve the problems in midfield – in terms of selection, positioning in defensive phases and creativity.
With a relentless, wily, technically proficient midfield of Karim El Ahmadi and Mbark Boussoufa, midfield is where Morocco could take real advantage. In January, Ivory Coast were unable to cope with the heavy pressing to their midfield and the likes of Mario Lemina and Naby Keita have shone against them in recent qualifier home defeats.
If Ivory Coast come into this game not knowing their best XI, Morocco certainly do. A successful AFCON where they bowed out in the quarter finals, knocking out Ivory Coast in the group stages, saw them playing effective, energetic and dynamic football, as per Renard’s ethos.
The reintroduction of Hakim Ziyech, who fell out with Renard prior to the tournament and missed out, has added gusto into the attack, as have the rampaging runs of Achraf Hakimi down the left. Two heavy wins at home against Mali and Gabon, in Rabat and Casablanca, have seen a slicker style of football and adoration for the team only increase.
Had Ziyech converted a penalty and converted a draw into a win in Bamako, Morocco would have all but qualified now through a superior goal difference. The fans, then, believe for the first time in a long time, especially with a coach of Renard’s gravitas.
If disaster was to strike in Abidjan, Morocco would still return home with their heads held high while Ivory Coast would qualify with huge reservations against them.