Hosts Morocco face debutants Botswana for a place in the semi-finals of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations and more importantly, a spot at the World Cup next year. Another packed Stade Moulay Abdellah stadium is expected to back the hosts to their first ever semi-final, but Botswana proved in their narrow loss to South Africa that they are a tough nut to crack.
Stuttering Morocco get the job done so far
Featuring in their first WAFCON for 22 years, the Moroccans are making their first appearance in the knockout phase of the tournament. They won all three matches, conceding one goal (a spectacular freekick against Uganda) and have the top scorer at the tournament. And yet, there is a sense that Morocco have not actually played very well.
The Atlas Lionesses topped what was widely seen as the weakest group in the tournament. Prior to this tournament, the four teams in the group had only appeared at the WAFCON once in the last 20 years and none of the teams had ever been out of the group stage at the competition.
Where the other group leaders Zambia and South Africa had to beat giants of the game, Morocco’s most difficult fixture came against a Senegal side who had only one previous appearance under their belt.
Morocco can only beat who is put in front of them and so criticism based on level of opposition may be unfair. But the manner of the victories has also been underwhelming. Against Burkina Faso, Morocco’s sole goal was a freekick that should have been saved. While dominating the game, the conceded two glorious chances to Burkina Faso which on another day would have seen them draw.
Against Uganada, they were outplayed by the East Africans for stretches of the match. They scored from two penalties, one of which was extremely harsh and saw Uganda reduced to 10 women, and a good set piece. In their final match against Senegal they again relied on a penalty to see off their opponents.
Morocco deserve to be where they are in the competition and have been the better side in all of their matches, but they have not been entirely convincing. While their set pieces have been superb, they are yet to score a goal in open play which will no doubt concern Reynald Pedros.
Stubborn Botswana waiting on Tholakele
In their final match of the group stage, Botswana showed the defensive resilience that had been previously missing. Particularly in the first half, South Africa had no joy once they got into the final third as their rivals played with a impenetrable low block.
They will likely set up in similar fashion against a Morocco side that does not have the same penetration as Banyana Banyana. Gaoletlhoo Nkutlwisang will no doubt be working on her side’s defending of set pieces in preparation for Ghizlane Chebbak’s inevitable quality. But it is further up the pitch where Botswana struggle.
The Mares put four superb goals past Burundi in the group stage which was enough to see them into the quarter-finals, but since they have struggled to create chances. In their defence, their two next games were against the two favourites for the tournament in South Africa and Nigeria, but they offered almost no threat over the 180 minutes.
The one exception has been Refilwe Tholakele. The forward grabbed two goals and an assist against Burundi, but her real quality has been demonstrated in the previous two games. Tholakele has shown an incredible ability to drop deep, receive the ball and find space, either through her passing range or quick feet. Time and time again she would pick up a wild clearance on the half way line and win a freekick, giving her defence a breather. If anyone in this Botswana side will change the game it will be Tholakele.
But in the second half against South Africa, she picked up an injury and had to be stretchered off. Coach Nkutlwisang refused to comment on Tholakele’s fitness, but it is no understatement to say that Botswana’s hope of a World Cup spot and semi-final berth in their first ever WAFCON relies on her race back to fitness.
What they said
Morocco head coach Reynald Pedros:
“We have an objective which is to qualify to the semi-finals. We’ve been preparing for over a year in order to reach this point.
“We were the first in the group and we need to work and keep on working and of course reassuring the players and that’s what we did ever since the start of the competition. This is not a negative pressure.”
Botswana head coach Gaoletlhoo Nkutlwisang:
“It’s a game of tactics. A game of giving it all. It’s a stage whereby in 90 minutes all are working for Botswana. We need it more than Morocco need it.
“We have one [injury]. But there’s a chance on it. I will hear the final update. But all the other players are ready for selection.”