Morocco raring for CAN return
Morocco are poised to return to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations stage after failing to make it to Angola 2010.
The 1976 champions will kick off their campaign on 23 January against a Tunisia side to whom they lost 2-1 in the 2004 final. These heavyweights will be favourites to progress from a Group C that is completed by co-hosts Gabon and surprise qualifiers Niger.
Morocco, making their 14th appearance in the competition, owe their presence in Libreville to a qualifying campaign that saw them top their section courtesy of a 4-0 rout of Algeria and wins over Tanzania both at home and away.
Former Marseille coach Eric Gerets, who took command of the Atlas Lions in 2010 after a successfful one-season spell in Saudi Arabia, can count on a potentially potent smattering of Europe-based players.
Among this group are Arsenal striker Marouane Chamakh, Queens Park Rangers playmaker Adel Taarabt and Celtic defender Badr El Kaddouri, along with a large contingent plying their trade in France, including midfielders Youssouf Hadji of Rennes and Younes Belhanda of Montpellier.
Chamakh, El Kaddouri, Hadji, Jamal Allioui and Houcine Kharja all figured in Morocco's disappointing campaign in 2008 when, under Henri Michel, they failed to make it into the knockout phase, with a 5-1 drubbing of Namibia their only high point.
Taraabt and Chamakh were on the score-sheet in the finals-clinching win over Tanzania in Marrakech in October. The latter, who has fallen down Arsene Wenger's pecking order, had been linked with a move away from the Emirates, possibly to Fiorentina, but he emphasised this week his only focus was on performing well for his country.
"I want to have a fantastic African Nations Cup," Chamakh stated. "The rest will follow,"
Neil Warnock, discussing Taarabt before his sacking as QPR manager last Sunday, said of the 22-year-old: "He's been fantastic for us over the last few games. He knew he had to knuckle down and become more of a team player and he has. He's lost weight, looked sharper, and been an all-round better player."
Mehdi Benatia, meanwhile, travels to Libreville having picked up the vote for best overseas-based player of 2011 by the Moroccan media after his sterling work in defence during qualifying.
Morocco are 61st on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.