PORT-GENTIL, Gabon, Jan 28 – Herve Renard will be hoping to move a step closer to winning a third Africa Cup of Nations crown when he leads Morocco into a quarter-final against Egypt in Port-Gentil on Sunday evening.
The dashing Frenchman eliminated the Ivory Coast, the side he led to the title in 2015, as Morocco made the knockout phase of a Cup of Nations for the first time since 2004.
Also the architect of Zambia’s unlikely triumph in Gabon in 2012, Renard’s aim now is to become the first coach to win the title three times with three different countries.
It would be another triumph against the odds, given the number of key players Morocco lost to injury before jetting off to Gabon, but they displayed their fighting qualities to make it out of their group.
“There are superior teams to us in the competition, but when they are up against us they have to prove it,” said Renard after dumping out the Ivorians in Oyem.
Morocco’s north African rivals Egypt have been a difficult team to break down under Hector Cuper and progressed from their group without conceding a goal.
Hopes are now beginning to rise back home that the Pharaohs can mark their return to the competition after a seven-year absence by winning a record eighth title.
“Our ambitions are very high and we are going to fight and give our best in order to keep progressing,” said Cuper after the 1-0 win against Ghana that saw them top Group D.
Egypt’s only win in five previous Cup of Nations matches against Morocco came in a 1986 semi-final on home soil, but there are practical reasons for them to be confident as they eye a semi in Libreville next Wednesday.
Playing the game in Port-Gentil, where they have been based all along, means they have enjoyed a more relaxed build-up.
Morocco may have had an extra 24 hours to prepare, but they were delayed in leaving the northern town of Oyem on Thursday.
When they arrived in Port-Gentil, the Moroccan delegation found that the hotel originally set aside for them was not ready and so they were forced to come up with an alternative solution.
That is because Ghana, who were travelling in the opposite direction, had not yet left Port-Gentil, and the Black Stars only arrived in Oyem on Friday afternoon.
– ‘Wake-up call’ –
Ghana will face DR Congo there earlier on Sunday and they will be eager to see a more suitable playing surface there than they had to deal with in Port-Gentil during the group stage.
“I hope the pitch is better than there because it was not good for everybody,” said Ghana coach Avram Grant after training on Friday.
Ghana are hopeful of having skipper Asamoah Gyan back fit from the thigh injury that forced him off in the first half of Wednesday’s defeat to Egypt.
DR Congo have arguably been the most impressive side in the tournament thus far and Grant has warned his men, runners-up in 2015, that their recent record will count for nothing.
“Two giants, in my opinion, in Ivory Coast and Algeria, are out of the way so it’s a good wake-up call to all the people that think they are a big team and that it’s enough,” Grant said.
“It’s not enough. You need to prove it on the pitch.”
DR Congo are battling to get several players ready in time for the game after Chancel Mbemba, with a knee problem, joined the queue to the treatment room in the wake of their 3-1 win over Togo on Tuesday.
“He felt it quite early in the match, he carried on but if he doesn’t improve we will not be able to use him against the Ghanaians,” said coach Florent Ibenge.
Defensive trio Fabrice Nsakala, Jordan Ikoko and Gabriel Zakuani are also fighting to be fit.