Morocco, Tunisia gear up for 2004 repeat
Morocco and Tunisia both have something to prove when they face off on day three of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations tomorrow. The north African neighbours are favourites to qualify into the knockout stages, and three points for one of them will provide the perfect stepping stone to topping Group C and avoiding a potential quarter-final against competition heayweights Ghana.
Morocco, champions in 1976, return to the Cup of Nations final stages after failing to make it to Angola in 2010. And this match-up sees them renew hostilities with the team that beat them in the 2004 final in Tunis.
Morocco, making their 14th Cup appearance, owe their presence in Libreville to a qualifying campaign that saw them top their group with a 4-0 rout of Algeria and wins in both legs against Tanzania. Former Marseille coach Eric Gerets has a squad brimming with quality - the likes of Arsenal striker Marouane Chamakh and QPR playmaker Adil Taarabt and Fiorentina's Houcine Kharja, the captain.
Ranked 61 in FIFA's world rankings, Morocco may have been travelling in the wrong direction from their career high ranking of ten in 1998 but nevertheless they are fancied to make a major impact in the 2012 Cup. Gerets, all but two of whose 23-man squad are attached to clubs overseas, said: "You can never tell what is going to happen.
"When you think a match is going to be difficult it turns out to be very easy, for example that Algeria game in qualifying. We thought beforehand it was going to be extremely tough but it turned out to be our easiest game. I think it could come down to which of us scores first. Our preparations have gone smoothly... we're impatient to get going."
Tunisia owe their presence in Gabon to finishing runners-up in their qualifying group behind Botswana. They are still smarting from the agony at missing out on the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and being dumped out of the 2010 Cup of Nations in the first round. Defending their 2004 title has proved hard work as they failed to make it past the last eight in both 2006 and 2008 before disappointment in Angola when they finished at the foot of their group after three stalemates, including a 0-0 draw with Gabon.
Karim Haggui, the defender who plays his club football with German side Hannover 96, provides some rare continuity as he was among then coach Roger Lemerre's title winning squad in 2004. Teammate Issam Jemaa made his international debut the following year and hasn't looked back since, the Auxerre striker emerging as his country's all time top scorer with six of his 28 goal haul coming in qualifying. The 27-year-old's sharp shooting will prove crucial for a Tunisia side desperate to regain their feet on the world stage.
Sami Trabelsi was appointed as coach in March 2011 after an uncertain period as a result of the popular uprising that toppled former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The former boss of Tunisia's Olympic team who played at the 1998 FIFA World Cup duly carried out his remit to secure his side's safe passage to Gabon.
Now the hard work begins. "I think this year we have a team that is capable of going very far in this Cup of Nations," he said. "In attack we have one of the best generations in our history. We have players who can make a difference at any time. They have considerable technical qualities."