In a rather tame encounter at the Al-Salam Stadium, Morocco edged past Namibia 1-0 to kick off Group D in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
The first half failed to separate the two nations with just two shots on target in the opening 45 minutes, but the Atlas Lions largely dominated proceedings.
And that pattern of play resumed after the restart with Herve Renard’s men continuously attacking the Namibian goal, though without any real penetration in the final third, but their relentless efforts eventually paid dividends after Itamunua Keimuine netted into his own net just before the final whistle.
And so, three points puts Morocco at the top of Group D, but who were the winners and losers from this tense affair?
Winner: Sofiane Boufal
The Southampton forward, who spent last season on loan at Celta, started the match on the bench, but transformed proceedings upon his introduction, truly taking the game to the Namibian defence with his slaloming runs, dribbling ability and creative zest.
Morocco certainly dominated the match, but lacked a verve and vigour in the final third, as Renard’s men struggled to break down a compact and well-organised Namibia side – that is, until Boufal entered the fray.
In an effort to find that key moment of quality, Renard turned to the forgotten Saint, who seemed to click his side into gear the moment his boot touched the turf.
Despite only being on the pitch for 30 minutes, the 25-year-old completed more dribbles than any player on the pitch (6) and had the second-most shots (3).
Winner: Petrus Shitembi
In a match largely dominated by Morocco, Shitembi was the key player for Namibia whenever the Brave Warriors produced something positive on the pitch.
His shimmies and jinks on the right caused Achraf Hakimi a few defensive problems, with the Lusaka Dynamos midfielder completing five dribbles throughout the match, more than any player on his side in the Egyptian capital, and the second-most in the entire match.
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But his piece de resistance came on the stroke of half time: collecting the ball with his back away from goal, the 27-year-old remained composed as Hakimi came rushing in, before nimbly turning the full-back, almost dismissively; taking him and Mbark Boussoufa out of the equation before surging forward – a truly mesmeric piece of skill.
Loser: Itamunua Keimuine
With Namibia heading for a well-fought point after producing a resilient performance against a strong Morocco side, substitute Keimuine came up with a moment to forget, conceding a last-minute own goal to gift Renard’s men all three points.
Namibia had defended expertly for 90 minutes, but Morocco kept probing and testing their backline, which eventually crumbled under the seismic pressure the Atlas Lions were exerting.
This will come as a moment of redemption and perhaps relief for Renard, who suffered a similar fate in the World Cup last year in Russia, when an injury-time own goal from substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz gave Iran a first win at in the tournament since 1998.
Winner: Ryan Nyambe
With Morocco throwing the kitchen sink at Namibia for most of the match, Nyambe was a formidable force at the back for the Brave Warriors, aptly conforming to the spirit of the nation’s moniker, despite the late goal conceded.
Just one of only two players to ply their trade on European soil for Ricardo Mannetti’s men, the Blackburn Rovers centre-back was an absolute rock, forming a strong partnership with Denzil Hoaseb, who also deserves a mention.
On evidence of this performance, it’s quite clear to see that the 21-year-old has honed his craft in the hustle and bustle of lower tier English football, proving streetwise and aggressive against a highly technical Morocco attack.
Loser: Hakim Ziyech
Often Morocco’s fulcrum, the Ajax talisman struggled to break down Namibia’s backline and truly penetrate Lloyd Kazapua’s goal. The 26-year-old certainly showed glimmers of his balletic brilliance, but his shooting boots seemed to have been left behind.
Having got himself into a number of brilliant shooting opportunities on more than a couple of occasions, Ziyech failed to demonstrate his usual precision and power when firing at goal. No player managed more shots off target than the Netherlands-born Moroccan.
Ziyech ultimately produced the definitive cross in the dying embers, which secured his side maximum reward in Cairo, but in truth, it was an absolute clanger from Keimuine, and the Ajax man will need to step up his game against more formidable opponents.