Hosts Morocco face nine time champions Nigeria for a spot in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations final. The hosts have never made it past the group stage, have not been in the competition since 2000 and have to overcome back-to-back-to-back champions, but the Atlas Lionesses come into the game with plenty of belief.
Atlas Lionesses roaring to final
Despite the overwhelming gap in pedigree and experience, the Moroccans are only considered slight underdogs in what should be a fiercely contested match.
They come into the semi-final having won every match so far, conceding just two goals, both from direct free kicks. Reynald Pedros, former double UEFA Champions League winning coach with Lyon, has coached his team into a cohesive unit that are defensive solid and play a brand of football that is easy on the eye.
The home side also possess the best set piece takers in the tournament in the shape of Ghizlane Chebbak and Fatima Tagnaout, who between the two of them, have scored or assisted four goals from freekicks, all of the teams non-penalty goals.
The final tool in the Moroccan arsenal is the incredible home support that will be expected for the match tomorrow. In the quarter-final victory over Botswana, the Stade Moulay Abdellah was already fully packed nearly an hour before kick off. 45,000 fans of the passion that the Moroccans possess is a challenge that very few players in the world have to deal with, and is certainly something rarely seen in the women’s game.
Super Falcons looming
If there is any team on the continent that can manage an intense atmosphere like the one expected tonight, it is Nigeria. In 2016, Nigeria overcame hosts Cameroon in the final in front of a sensational 42,500 fans in Yaounde in what is widely considered to be the greatest match in African women’s football history.
There are still plenty of players in the Nigeria squad that played in that final and the Nigerians have the tools to once again upset the hosts in a do-or-die match. They have absorbed the blow of losing star Asisat Oshoala with players like Rasheedat Ajibade, Fransisca Ordega and Ifeoma Onumonu stepping up in the Barcelona star’s absence.
The Super Falcons recovered from their match-day one loss to South Africa, by swatting aside debutants Botswana and Burundi. They followed that up with a gritty performance against Cameroon in the quarter-finals. It wasn’t a glitzy win, but at this stage in the competition, performance is far outweighed by results and the Nigerians know how to get those results.
Midfield battle key to success
Morocco have so far only played opposition that they are expected to dominate against, the perks of getting a lucky group stage draw followed up by topping their group. When playing weaker sides, players like Chebbak and playmaker Sanaa Mssoudy have had time on the ball to control possession and pick their passes.
But Nigeria carry what is the most physical and powerfully dominating midfield. Halimatu Ayinde is an excellent holding midfielder who can break up play, both Christy Uchiebe and Ngozi Okobi-Oke are mobile players capable of pressing aggressively.
But the biggest threat to Morocco’s midfield is Ajibade. If she plays in the midfield instead of a winger she is the most dominant central player at the tournament. She is strong, quick, direct, but also possess real technical talent to pick passes and score goals as she has this tournament, being level with Chebbak as top scorer on three goals.
Pedros will look to South Africa as the model to win that battle. Banyana Banayana pressed Nigeria aggressively and high up the pitch, denying the defence the chance to play into midfield. If they can force the Super Falcon defence to play balls over the top rather than into midfield, the Moroccans will find joy, otherwise they will find it hard to cope with Nigeria’s talent in midfield
What they said
Morocco head coach Reynald Pedros:
“Nigeria is the strongest team in Africa and we know their strength. We need to do our best and we are prepared for the game.
“We know they are strong, they have been the strongest for several years and we are ready. I won’t reveal our plans for the game, but we know what we are facing, we know they are experience.”
Nigeria head coach Randy Waldrum:
“The players and our nation are very excited that we’ve checked the first box and are headed to the World Cup. That’s obviously the main objective for us.
“There are certainly things that we felt we could have done better. And there are certain things that moving forward, preparing for the World cup, the president and I will discuss. We’re always trying to raise the bar in making things better for our players.”