Can Herve verve spark Morocco?

The Ele­phants’ classy new gen­er­a­tion favourites

The Star Late Edition - - SPORT - NJABULO NGIDI

THE Ele­phants of Ivory Coast, with a star-stud­ded team, spent the last decade wad­dling aim­lessly in search of the pres­ti­gious Africa Cup of Na­tions (Af­con) tro­phy, un­til Herve Re­nard showed them the way to it two years ago. The French­man will be look­ing to prove that he still has that com­pass, which he had used to guide Zam­bia to Africa’s top prize in 2012, when he leads Morocco in Gabon.

He won’t find it easy as he has to nav­i­gate past a group that has a lot of emo­tional con­nec­tions with the 48-year-old coach. Re­nard’s At­las Lions start their Af­con cam­paign against the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo (DRC), a side he beat with the Ele­phants in 2015 to reach the fi­nal.

A clash with Togo led by his men­tor, Claude Le Roy, fol­lows be­fore he takes on his for­mer e mpl o y e r s , Ivory Coast. It’s an emo­tional mine­field Re­nard must care­fully make his way out of if he is to re­vive Morocco, who haven’t been African c h a mpi o n s for over four decades.

R e n a r d has adopted the no-non­sense ap­proach that helped him suc­ceed with Chipolopolo. He sur­pris­ingly left out Hakim Ziyech, a de­ci­sion that made him un­pop­u­lar in Morocco just like the de­ci­sion to send Clif­ford Mu­lenga home, for re­fus­ing to apol­o­gise for break­ing cur­few with Zam­bia in 2012, made him an un­pop­u­lar fig­ure in the Chipolopolo camp.

But that stance sent a mes­sage as to how the coach val­ues team unity over any­thing else.

Re­nard ar­gued he couldn’t guar­an­tee Ziyech game time as he had Younes Bel­handa and Mbark Bous­so­ufa to play be­hind the striker. Bel­handa has since been ruled out of the tour­na­ment be­cause of a toe in­jury, join­ing Ous­sama Tan­nane on the side­lines through in­juries.

Sofi­ane Bo­ufal pulled out of the 23-man squad be­cause of a knee in­jury. Even though Re­nard won the Af­con with Ivory Coast largely thanks to the stars he had, he thrived with un­knowns who played for the badge with Zam­bia.

Florent Ibenge has mas­tered that. He won a bronze medal with DRC in 2015 – not be­cause they had stars but be­cause they were a united team.

Achiev­ing that bal­ance will be the big­gest chal­lenge for the reign­ing African cham­pi­ons, the Ele­phants, as they em­bark on a path to re­tain their tro­phy.

Only three other na­tions – Egypt, Ghana and Cameroon – have re­tained this tro­phy. A lot of the play­ers who helped Ivory Coast win the Af­con aren’t there, new and younger blood have been brought in.

But the pos­i­tive is that most of that new blood has been around the set-up, in­clud­ing coach Michel Dus­suyer who has served as an as­sis­tant coach.

The Ele­phants are favourites from Group C along with Morocco be­cause of Re­nard’s Mi­das touch and Ivory Coast’s qual­ity. DRC can spoil all of that while you can never dis­count Togo be­cause of the old hand, Le Roy, guid­ing them. He has con­sis­tently taken his teams to the knock-out stage, only fail­ing to get out of the group stage with DRC in 2013 in South Africa. Oyem is a re­mote city in the north­ern parts of Gabon that’s iso­lated from civil­i­sa­tion. It bor­ders Equa­to­rial Guinea. This sta­dium, built by a Chi­nese com­pany, sits in a re­mote vil­lage north of Oyem. It was built for this tour­na­ment at a cost es­ti­mated to be just un­der R825 mil­lion. It was com­pleted last May. It will host Group C matches and a quar­ter-fi­nal tie be­tween the group’s win­ners and run­ners-up of Group D. Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo: 1968 and 1974 – Cham­pi­ons Ivory Coast: 1992 and 2015 Cham­pi­ons Togo: 2013 – Quar­ter-fi­nals Morocco: 1976 – Cham­pi­ons –

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