We look ahead to Group F at AFCON 2023 with our group stage preview. Morocco impressed everyone at the 2022 World Cup, but can they go on to win the AFCON? They face a stiff test in a group alongside tricky opponents DR Congo and Zambia, while Tanzania are the outsiders.

Two matches brought Morocco down to earth last June after the dizzying heights of reaching the World Cup semi-final in 2022: a goalless draw with Cape Verde and then a jarring loss to South Africa. But it was how they drew 1-1 with Cote d’Ivoire in October that seemed to jolt the North African country into the realisation that they could not bask in World Cup euphoria forever.

That said, history seems to be on the side of the Atlas Lions as they chase a first AFCON title since 1976. When Cameroon danced their way to the 1990 World Cup quarter-final, they followed it with a 1992 AFCON semi-final place. Senegal’s 2002 World Cup heroics were followed by a quarter-final finish at AFCON 2004, and Ghana’s 2010 World Cup semi-final journey preceded an AFCON 2012 semi-final berth.

So, then, Morocco can expect to finish in the quarter-final, at least?

“If we finish in anything less than the AFCON semi-final, I will leave the job,” coach Walid Regragui told French media early last year. That bullish tone was before the draw with Ivory Coast, after which Regragui’s stance changed. “We are not favourites to win the AFCON,” he would then be widely quoted as saying.

However, with a team in form, and being the neutrals’ favourite, Morocco will find it hard to convince anyone that this is not their AFCON to lose – especially when the host nation, Ivory Coast, is home to a large Moroccan community and the North Africans have so much going for them.

Morocco’s Key Man is their Coach

A man not short of confidence, Regragui balances belief with copious doses of humility, too. His paradoxical nature should not be a surprise; he knows what heady wins and crushing failures feel like. As a player, he was part of the Morocco team that reached the final of AFCON 2004.

And with the whole nation expecting a similar performance or better in 2006, he – and a team including ex-Arsenal man Marouane Chamakh, UEFA Champions League legend Noureddine Naybet and others – crashed out at the group stage.

Walid Regragui Morocco

Should he win this tournament, Regragui will become only the second man in history, behind Egypt’s Mahmoud El Gohary, to win the African Champions League and the AFCON as a coach. Being French-born and trained, the 48-year-old however got his coaching education and opportunity in Africa. With a 27-man squad made up of both European- and Moroccan-born players, Regragui is the perfect man to gel together the different mentalities at play. But why is there so much pressure on this team?

Expectations Abound

In the last decade, over $120 million has been spent by the football-obsessed King of Morocco and the government on improving infrastructure, talent identification and capacity building. The result has been a period of dominance of Moroccan football on multiple levels, with two CAF Champions Leagues, four CAF Confederations Cups, a second-place finish at the 2022 Women’s AFCON, a first-ever qualification to last year’s Women’s World Cup and the Women’s under-17 World Cup.

Considering that fierce rivals Algeria won an AFCON in 2019, while Egypt are AFCON royalty, football fans in Morocco believe it is now or never.

The Goals Must Flow

Group F is perfect for Morocco: not too easy, not too tough. And with a balanced team, the North Africans can play as the intense pressing and counter-attacking machine they’ve evolved into from the low-block style at the World Cup.

In Qatar, the Atlas Lions were content with combining minimal possession (37.8% was the sixth lowest) with quick counters as they faced technically superior teams. At this tournament, the same will be done to them.

A growing concern is the lack of efficiency, with the team scoring 38 goals in their last 28 games (averaging 1.4 goals per game), dating back to the start of the last AFCON. “We simply have to be more clinical, because it has become a habit since the World Cup that we create so many chances, but convert so little,” says former goalie Nadir Lamyaghri. “It is not normal that with the players we have, we struggle to score loads of goals.”

At the last AFCON in 2021, Morocco had the third-best non-penalty expected goals (xG) per 90 average of 1.54, but scored just six non-penalty goals in their five games (1.13 per 90). At the 2022 World Cup, they were even less clinical, scoring 9.8% of their shots – 0.2% lower than at the last Africa Cup of Nations. That’ll need to change if they are to succeed here.

Morocco World Cup Goals

A Fluid Squad

Morocco have the quality to break down any opponent, with talents such as Achraf Hakimi, Hakim Ziyech and Bologna’s talented defensive midfielder Oussama El Azzouzi.

Expect the Atlas Lions to start in a 4-1-4-1 formation at this tournament.

Yassine Bounou should be in goal with Attiat Allah at left-back instead of Bayern’s Noussair Mazraoui (recovering from injury), while captain Roman Saïss (who famously lost his father during AFCON 2017 but insisted on playing and then scored) is a guaranteed starter at centre-back alongside West Ham’s Nayef Aguerd.

Manchester United’s Sofiane Amrabat should start in defensive midfield and Azzedine Ounahi (arguably the team’s most important player behind Hakimi) further ahead. Selim Amallah can play anywhere in midfield together with the very technical Amine Harit or Bilal El Khannous. On the right of midfield Ziyech should start, while Leverkusen’s Amine Adli can pip the recently-injured Boufal to spot on the left side of attacking midfield. 

For the first time in his international career, the untouchable Youssef En-Nesyri (Sevilla) has credible competition up front from Olympiacos’ Ayoub El Kaabi (who has seven goals in the Greek Super League this season) and Gent’s nine-goal forward Tarik Tissoudali (who missed the World Cup due to injury but was key in Morocco’s World Cup qualification). En-Nesyri remains favourite because of his incredible work rate and defensive contribution. 

Tarik Tissoudali Goals

The team’s undisputed star is Hakimi, who from right-back has been the one world-class player that can be counted on in tough times. The PSG man is evolving into a Philip Lahm, Joshua Kimmich or Javier Zanetti, and we may see him contributing to more midfield duties as the tournament progresses. The full-back is the most creative Ligue 1 defender from open play so far this season, with 24 chances created and four assists.

Achraf Hakimi Assists

The Atlas Lions know they have a poor AFCON record – four semi-finals in 20 appearances – and traditionally don’t do well when the tournament is hosted in West Africa. Will their luck change?

The glory days are long gone.

In 1968 and 1974, DR Congo won the tournament in a previous guise, but very few Congolese today have any memories of those days. It’s just stories. “It has become important for us to write songs of today that can be sung by today’s people,” said the recently-retired legendary DRC forward Trésor Mputu Mabi. “Even when I led the team to bronze in 2015, that was not enough, because we need to be more consistent.”

Since the turn of the century, DR Congo have somehow had a sorry AFCON story despite being stacked with talent: three group stage exits, then failure to qualify for three consecutive tournaments between 2008 and 2012, an inexplicable round of 16 crash against Madagascar in 2019, and not making it to the last edition at all.

In came Sébastien Desabre, a man known to work well with scarce resources. League titles in Angola, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Tunisia preceded a stint with Uganda, who he led to an improbable last-16 finish at AFCON 2019. The 47-year-old inherited a DRC side in a bit of pickle left by Héctor Cúper, and the Leopards were bottom of their qualifying group. Without a single point after two defeats to Gabon and Sudan, and on a seven-match winless streak, Desabre led his side to four successive AFCON qualifier wins and a first-place finish in Group I after taking over.

Afcon 2023 Qualifiers Group I

Are They Ready for the Next Level?

Unlike the early 2000s, when businessmen invested in top teams to keep local talent in the country, the best DRC players now call Tanzania and Angola home. As a result, there has been an increasing focus on tapping up players from the Congolese diaspora, something Desabre has actively encouraged. He said in December: “DR Congo have always had outstanding players. But if we’re going to go to the next level, there’s no question that we need the players who are dual nationals to choose who they’re going to play for at an earlier age.

“If you took all the Congolese players who are in France, Belgium and Sweden, you’d have an absolute dream team. The thing is, these young players don’t choose to play for DR Congo at an early age because we don’t really have a national team project to offer them when they’re kids.”

The most high-profile name Desabre has been chasing is Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who has represented DRC at U20 level and England at U21. For now, he still hopes to feature for the Three Lions, despite formidable competition at right-back from Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, and Tino Livramento.

Despite this setback, DRC were able to convince French-born SC Braga forward Simon Banza and Swiss-born defensive midfielder Charles Pickel to switch nationalities, and the duo have brought variety to the side.

Banza’s enjoyed a brilliant season in the Portuguese top flight, leading the scoring charts with 14 goals at the time of writing and posting a league-high expected goals total (10.2), shot conversion (29.8%) and minutes-per-goal ratio (76).

Simon Banza Goals

Is the Squad Strong Enough?

Preferring to play a 4-3-2-1, DRC will likely start Lionel Mpasi in goal, with Arthur Masuaku at left-back. Captain Chancel Mbemba, in great form with Marseille, should pair with Henoc Inonga Baka while either of Gedeon Kalulu or Joris Kayembe fills in at right-back. The wonderfully named Sammy Moutoussamy and Charles Pickel are the preferred defensive midfielders, and ex-Chelsea man Gael Kakuta has been great as a fulcrum. Brentford’s Yoane Wissa and Meschak Elia should be left and right wingers respectively.

Wissa has been a positive in a somewhat shaky Premier League season for an Ivan Toney-less Brentford alongside Cameroon forward Bryan Mbeumo, who misses AFCON 2023 with injury. He’s their second-top scorer in league competition with four goals, while only Vitaly Janelt (23) has created more chances for the Bees from open play than Wissa (15).

It is up front that things get interesting, though. Previous DRC sides of the last decade had medium-to-tall centre-forwards such as Cédric Bakambu, Neeskens Kebano and Dieumerci Mbokani. Now, they have the handful that is Silas Mvumpa. Imposing, fast, and capable of playing as a left or right winger, too, the 6-foot-2 Stuttgart man is deceptively mobile and deadly. If unavailable, they can look to Fiston Mayele, who is quick, technically very good and has an eye for a killer pass.   

The main weakness of this team is their defending. Even though they conceded just four goals in qualifying, a stronger side will lay their set-piece deficiencies bare, while their full-backs are either too static or too adventurous – they need balance.

The last time Zambia won a match at the AFCON, the trophy followed them to Lusaka. That was in February 2012, and the Chipolopolo then exited at the group stage of the following two tournaments. More woe came when they failed to qualify for the following three editions.

Now, they are back for the first time since 2015, and with former Chelsea boss Avram Grant in tow. “All I have done is to keep the team calm and focused,” the Israeli told ZBC Sports in his usual understated way after booking the AFCON ticket. It’s typical of a man who is more known for his man management than for his tactical acumen.

Grant’s jovial disposition makes underrating him easy, but leading Ghana to the final and fourth place in 2015 and 2017 respectively suggests the 68-year-old knows his African onions. Indeed, Grant has barely added new talent to the Zambian team he inherited, instead focusing on improving the existing set.

Avram Grant Zambia

Grant’s Man-Management Strikes Again

Lameck Banda had just moved from Israel to Italy when Grant took the job in December 2022, and the quick forward became a credible attacking option. But the poster boy of the Grant era is midfielder Kelvin Kapumbu, who plays for Zambian top-flight side Zesco United. (A warning to commentators: the squad has another midfielder called Kelvin Kampamba, who also plays for Zesco United, and is also 27!)

Previously prone to getting yellow and red cards, Kapumbu now channels his energies into intelligent runs, assisting with defensive duties and visionary play. When injury forced him to miss two games in November against Niger (Zambia lost 2-0) and Congo (won 4-2), his absence was conspicuous.

“When I saw Kelvin at first, I actually did not think much of him. But I figured he had something, so I worked with him and – credit to him – he’s grabbed the opportunity,” Grant said recently.

Zambia topped their qualifying group with a game to spare in the qualifiers, which included tournament hosts Ivory Coast, Comoros, and Lesotho with four wins, a draw, and just one loss in six matches, bagging 13 points in the process.

“With Grant in charge, meritocracy has become the standard,” Zambian sports analyst Puncherello Chama says. “This has reflected on the morale in camp because the players know consistency is being rewarded.”

Modest Team Expectations

That consistency has led to a quiet expectation that the Chipolopolo will come second to expected Group F winners, Morocco. Key to this hope is Leicester City striker Patson Daka, who contributed five goals in AFCON qualifying. The 25-year-old was a 2017 U20 AFCON winner and says that the senior team “is going to [Ivory Coast] with the mindset and belief that we can do anything we want.”

His partner up front will be Saudi-based Fashion Sakala, who finished 2023 as the highest Zambian scorer across all competitions (club and country) with 22 goals and 11 assists in 52 appearances. Look out for Crvena Zvezda’s 24-year-old midfielder Kings Kangwa, and captain Lubambo Musonda, who is “positive and confident in the team to go all the way to the final and win it.”

Lecce’s Lameck Banda is one to watch at this tournament, with the winger one of the most prolific dribblers in Serie A this season. He averages a similar number of take-ons (7.2 per 90) to Napoli star Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (7.4) but completes more than the Georgian (3.2 vs 2.9) and only Matías Soulé has averaged more successful take-ons per 90 in Serie A this season (3.9) than Banda.

Zambia usually go 4-3-3. Lawrence Mulenga is the most consistent Zambian goalkeeper, with Benedict Chepeshi at right-back and Rodrick Kabwe at left-back. Stoppila Sunzu, the only remaining member of the victorious 2012 AFCON squad pairs his vast centre-back experience with Ayr United’s Frankie Musonda, the only player in the squad not born in Zambia.

The previously mentioned Kapumbu usually partners Emmanuel Banda, whose talent is long-range shots. Another recent revelation of this team is the exciting playmaker Kangwa. The Crvena Zvezda man took over this position from the stricken Enock Mwepu, the Brighton player forced to retire due to heart problems in 2022. Back in September 2023, Kangwa became just the seventh Zambian player to appear in the UEFA Champions League.

A tricky group awaits, and despite having a squad of not-so-popular names, captain Musonda reckons Zambia “have a team that is able to fight; a team that is able to give their best.”

Every AFCON, there is always that one team that wins the did-they-just-call-this random-player-into-the-national-team bingo. Tanzania win this edition with a player in the seventh tier of English football and two players from the fifth tier – but more about that later.

The Taifa Stars qualified for the tournament by the skin of their teeth, which pretty much sums up the grit that has characterised Tanzanian football in the last decade. After waiting almost 40 years to reappear at the AFCON following their 1980 debut, the investment in growing the game has led to a second appearance (and third overall) in three editions.

Club Growth Fuels National Pride

Simba SC and Young Africans (aka Yanga), the nation’s two club giants, have emerged as credible forces on the African club scene, with regular forays into the business end of the CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup. Yanga reached the final of the Confederation Cup last season, losing to Algerian side USM Alger. This steady overall improvement has had a significant impact on the national team – but there’s a catch. Both clubs currently feature within the top 15 African sides in the Opta Power Rankings.

Although the Tanzania Premier League is one of Africa’s most vibrant, with exciting atmospheres, a knowledgeable fan base and attractive compensation for players and teams, the quality in the Taifa Stars is still some distance from matching the league’s output. “The league’s very best players come from outside the country because clubs can afford to pay such talent,” says Hans van der Pluijm, a Dutch man who has coached in the local top flight since 2014.

“Even though administrators are investing well in the top leagues, they need some deliberate policies at grassroots level to consistently produce quality players for the national team,” adds Privaldinho, a popular Tanzanian journalist.

In effect, even though Tanzania can be proud to be the only East African nation at this tournament, a lack of depth is the reason they are expected to exit at the group stage. Will they be able to do better than the one point in six games from the last two editions?

How Robust Are They?

Tanzania booked their AFCON ticket not by playing excellent football, but by doing just enough to qualify on the last day in a group that included Algeria, Uganda, and Niger.

Coach Adel Amrouche struggles with a distinct defensive naivety, and a side that tends to switch off after the hour mark. Full-backs Dickson Job and Novatus Miroshi are prone to leaving spaces that can exploited, and the team can be unimaginative in its build-up.

Knowing they are the most unfancied team in Group F, Tanzania embarked recently on a search of players to shore up the existing core, which is how Swedish-born goalkeeper Kwesi Zion Kawawa made his debut in a World Cup qualifier against Morocco last November.

From England’s fifth tier come three diasporans. Haji Mnoga, 21, who has represented England’s U17 side, plays for Aldershot Town and made his national team debut in March 2022. Then there’s Tarryn Allarakhia from Wealdstone, who has been called up for the first time. Finally, there’s another English National League inclusion in Mohammed Sagaf, a Somali-born playmaker at Boreham Wood. It’s his first-ever call-up, too.

The most eye-raising, however, are Anthony Ben Starkie, who plays for Ilkeston Town in England’s seventh tier, and Miano Danilo, who plays for a provincial club in the south of Spain. To be fair, Starkie has previously played for Tanzania’s U17 and was part of the squad at the U20 AFCON in 2020, but questions have been raised about whether the thriving Tanzanian Premier League could not produce a better attacking midfielder. 

The Top Scorers

Former Aston Villa striker Mbwana Samatta and Algeria-based striker Simon Msuva, ranking second and third respectively in Tanzania’s all-time top scorers’ list, are ones to watch in this team. They scored Tanzania’s only two goals in their last AFCON appearance in 2019, in a 3-2 group stage defeat to Kenya.

Samatta has been the darling boy for the last decade, but he’s not been good for the national team for a while, having last scored in 2019. He’s not been too hot in front of goal at club level this season either, with just two goals in 14 Greek Super League appearances for PAOK (across 673 minutes). He’ll need to be at his best to help the Taifa Stars advance out of Group F.

Mbwana Samatta Tanzania

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