This was a very important game for both teams, especially Morocco since a loss would see them out of the 2012 African Cup of Nations, after their 2-1 defeat to Tunisia in their first group game. Gabon were coming into this game on a high after a comfortable 2-0 win over Niger in their opening match as host nation.
Eric Gerets made four changes from the opening game as Hermach, Carcela, Hadji and El Arabi came in for Chamakh, Boussoufa, Amrabat and Assaidi. Taarabt would have been expected to start but had been complaining about illness, which is probably why Hadji started in behind El Arabi. Gernot Rohr made no changes from the team that beat Niger.
The game took a while to settle into a rhythm as the central midfielders couldnâ€™t get time on the ball, although early on we could see that Gabon tried to get the ball wide quickly to their pacy wingers or into the channels for Aubameyang to chase. Gabon had three energetic but not very creative players in the centre of midfield with Poko, Mandinda and Moubamba starting in a 4-1-4-1 with a flat back four, while Morocco started in a 4-2-3-1 so there were obvious match ups in the centre of midfield. This meant that, even though the pace Gabon had out wide was a strength, they tried to play balls forward too quickly – probably because the Gabonese central midfielders didnâ€™t have the guile to move the ball more intelligently into position higher up the pitch beforeÂ feeding it to the wingers and Aubameyang.
Morocco were more considered in their approach and when their two deeper lying midfielders managed to get the ball to the front four tried, they interchanged fluidly. El Arabi drifting from flank to flank and Kharja being the bridge between the deeper lying midfielders and the attacking midfielders when they had the ball. Carcela, Hadji and Belhanda were noticably narrow so kept the ball better, with Chretien and El Kaddouri providing width on the overlap. El Arabi made Morocco more fluid than they were three days ago, since he is more mobile than Chamakh and used the ball more intelligently as a lone striker.
During the ragged start it looked like the only way somebody would score was by a set piece and they had been generally poor in the tournament as a whole. But then 23 minutes into the match, Moroccoâ€™s fluid play paid dividends as Belhanda cut in from the right and supplied the ball to Kharja coming from deep to finish beyond Ovono. Â After the goal Gabon were controlling the possession more after their frenetic start and Rohr seemed to allow Aubameyang to drop deeper and drift to the flanks, making Gabon look more dangerous than when they were trying to play direct balls to Aubameyang and losing an aerial battle to Udineseâ€™s Benatia.
At half time Amrabat came on for El Arabi and former Hull striker Daniel Cousin came on for Nguema. The latter, in hindsight, was a lot more effective than Geretsâ€™ substitution. Amrabat, normally an attacking midfielder, was ineffective as Morocco could not control the game since Gabon were playing higher up and compressing the space that Moroccoâ€™s front four had to play in, while Amrabat did not have the pace to get in behind. Chamakh would probably have been a better substitution with his ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play or simply keeping El Arabi on to stretch play.
When Nguema came off for Cousin, Gabon changed to a 4-2-1-3, with Aubameyang moving to the right, where he looked more comfortable, Mouloungui moving to the left and Moubamba playing in a Kevin-Prince Boateng-esque role to make sure the team wasnâ€™t broken.
Cousin coming on meant that Gabon had somebody with the strength to hold the ball up and wait for the onrushing Moubamba and the two wide players. He had a hand in the equaliser as he attracted two defenders to the box from the throw-in, leaving Aubameyang space to score, plus, for Gabonâ€™s second goal, he received the ball with his back to goal and scored on the turn. Adel Taarabt came on for Carcela, however this was another like for like change that made hardly any difference. After Kharjaâ€™s second goal and equaliser it looked like it was all over until another key substitute in the game, Zita, scored a blinder of a free-kick to send Gabon through and Morocco crashing out.
Morocco have arguably the most versatile squad in theÂ tournament and Gerets has not been reactive enough when his team have got into trouble, which is why, after a meaningless match with Niger, Morocco will be going home. Rohr on the other hand with two substitutions changed the dynamic of the game twice. You could say Zita only scored a free kick but, with only a few seconds to go, he was obviously intended as a specialist set-piece taker which paid off.
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