Morocco shock favourites to lift cup

Morocco became the latest side to lift the Arab Nations Cup as they defeated Libya in a drama-filled final. The champions prevailed 3-1 in a penalty shoot-out after extra time finished with both sides level on a goal apiece.

It was a suitably exciting conclusion to a tournament that served up surprises from its start to finish. Morocco were perhaps the most surprising of victors. The champions triumphed over a raft of top sides despite entering the competition with a squad comprised entirely of domestic league players, while various pre-tournament favourites failed to make an impression.

As the dust settles, FIFA.com takes a look back over the rollercoaster ride that was the 2012 Arab Nations Cup.

The champions
Few were optimistic about Morocco’s chances after Belgian coach Eric Gerets announced a squad made up entirely of players from the country’s domestic league, but the eventual winners put the naysayers to shame when they finished top of Group B - their superior goal difference leaving Libya into second place.

It was during the final group stage game against Yemen that the side’s top scorer for the tournament, Yassine Salhi, first made his mark, scoring all the goals in Morocco’s 4-0 defeat of their Southern Arabian opponents and booking them a spot in the semi-finals against Iraq.

Having edged Iraq 2-1 in the last four, the Moroccans readied themselves for a tough North African derby against Libya in the final. As many had predicted, the two teams proved unable to provide a decisive result before the whistle blew for the end of extra time and with the score deadlocked at 1-1, the former Group B rivals were set for a spot-kick decider.

It was to be Morocco’s night, though, with the Lions of the Atlas holding their nerve to record a 3-1 win on penalties and claim their first ever Arab Nations Cup.

The runners-up
They may have lost out on the night, but Libya’s second-place finish was no less impressive than Morocco’s victory and, added to a string of good results in the African qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, highlights how far the country has come in recent months.

The country’s Libyan coach Abdelhafidh Erbish built his squad around a number of players with proven track records in the tournament such as Ali Salama, Faisal Al Badri, Walid Al Sebaaei plus the experience of the team’s captain and top scorer Ahmed Saad.

The approach paid immediate dividends as the team began their Group B campaign with a 3-1 defeat of Yemen, which they then followed with a respectable goalless draw against Morocco and a 2-1 win over Bahrain to qualify as the best-performing runner-up out of the three groups.

They were on a roll, and semi-final opponents and tournament hosts Saudi Arabia were powerless to stop them, folding 2-0 and ushering the Libyans into the final.

Surprises
Saudi Arabia’s semi-final defeat by Libya came as a huge shock to local fans, whose hopes had been raised after Frank Rijkaard’s charges had put on a stunning display to obliterate Kuwait 4-0 in their opening game.

However, a 2-2 draw with Palestine should have tempered expectations and indeed it proved to be the start of a slippery slope for the proud footballing nation. Hard on the heels of their 2-0 loss to Libya came a 1-0 defeat against Iraq in the play-off for third place, leaving Saudi’s experienced Dutch coach much to ponder for the future.

Iraq on the other hand have reason to be pleased. With Brazilian coach Zico resting many first-choice players following the start of the fourth round of Asian qualifiers for Brazil 2014, their third place finish is a notable achievement.

Kuwait, meanwhile, never recovered from losing their opening game to Saudi Arabia. A subsequent 2-0 win against a Palestine was not enough to save them from an ignominious group stage exit.

And, Bahrain fared little better. Gold medal winners at last year’s Arab Games and tipped to shine in Saudi Arabia, the small Gulf nation was overwhelmed by its Group B opponents. Beaten by Morocco, Libya and even lowly Yemen, Bahrain’s premature exit came as a shock to all.

The stat
3
– The number of teams that did not lose a single game throughout the competition. Champions Morocco and runners-up Libya share the honours with Sudan, who managed the feat despite failing to progress beyond the group stages.