Atlas Lions roaring again
© AFP

There is a proverb which says: 'Beware the lion which is no longer in its cage.' Well, Morocco's opponents in recent weeks have encountered a team frustrated at missing out on the last two FIFA World Cups™ and determined to set the record straight. French coach Henri Michel has brought pride back to these Lions and transformed the squad into one of the teams to be feared in the coming CAF Africa Cup of Nations.

"We've got a good group of around 20 players who fit into the style of football that we want to play. We've had a very good week," said Michel after November's two friendlies, and with good reason. In the space of a few days, Morocco managed to hold France to a 2-2 draw in the imposing Stade de France before strolling to a 3-0 win over African powerhouses Senegal. These two results are evidence of the wind of change that has blown through Moroccan football since the French coach took over.

These recent performances, coupled with a 2-0 win over Namibia in October, have seen Morocco climb back up to 39 th position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking - a big improvement on the 48 th place they occupied at their lowest ebb in April 2007.

Michel at home inMorocco
The North Africans' transformation can in large part be attributed to the return of someone who very much knows the ins and outs of Moroccan football. Henri Michel coached the Atlas Lions from 1995-2000 and was at the helm of top domestic club Raja Casablanca from 2003-2004, so he knows plenty about the country - and its footballers. "I'm lucky enough to be coaching some of the lads who played for me at the Olympic Games in Sydney," he explains. As well as a vast amount of local knowledge, Michel also has another advantage - namely the rare distinction of having led four different countries to the final phase of a FIFA World Cup: France in 1986, Cameroon in 1994, Morocco in 1998 and Côte d'Ivoire in 2006.

This wealth of experience seems to be rubbing off on players who took time to shake off the disappointment of losing out to Tunisia on the final day of qualifiers for Germany 2006. As soon as he had taken charge again, the man who coached France to the UEFA European Championship title in 1984 decided that Morocco needed to get back to basics. "He said we needed to be dedicated, to respect each another and the coaching staff and be willing to put the hours in," admitted Bordeaux striker Marouane Chamakh .

The first signs of progress came against France and Senegal on 16 and 21 November. Not only did the Atlas Lions show off their skills and attacking flair, but they also impressed with their strength, tactical awareness and team play. Their compact yet finely honed display put to rest any fears that Michel had about some of his players "lacking in athleticism, structure and tactics".

Ligue 1 talent pool
As well as the wealth of experience provided by their coach, Morocco can call on a number of players plying their trade in the upper echelons of European football, particularly in France. More than half of the squad who played against France and Senegal have Ligue 1 experience, with a third of the current squad having cut their teeth in the highly reputed French training academies.

Morocco's current first-choice eleven thus has a very French flavour to it. Captain Abdeslam Ouaddou is fifth in Ligue 1 at the moment with Valenciennes, while Moncef Zerka, Michael Chretien and Youssouf Hadji are part of a Nancy team pushing leaders Lyon all the way for the title. Chamakh's Bordeaux team are third in the current standings, thanks in no small part to his return to the form he showed in 2005 when he was one of the league's top prospects.

Their recent run makes the Atlas Lions one of the favourites for the Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana next January, but they will have their work cut out in Group A alongside Guinea and the host nation. "Everyone knows how tough the playing conditions and the climate are in Africa," said Michel. "If we can get through the first round, then we can really start to live the dream."

Ghana is very much a dress rehearsal for the real matter in hand, however. "Morocco failed to make it through to the last two competitions, so what we really want is to qualify for the 2010 World Cup," said Michel. Based on recent results, they should be aiming for nothing less.