Ready for the battle tonight
* We respect Morocco, but we don’t fear them—vice-captain John Banda
* We played this opponent twice three years ago and I was present in all games
* It is true that they are favorites, but we are here to play our game and pursue our goals
In their third Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) appearance, Malawi had already written a history for themselves, going beyond the group stage for the very first time — now they are eyeing one more step forward in the Round of 16 against north African giants Morocco this evening from 21:00hrs CAT.
After falling 0-1 to Guinea, the Flames responded in style, beating fellow Confederation of African Football Associated (COSAFA) member, Zimbabwe 2-1 before holding giants Senegal to a goalless draw that ensured their place in the Round of 16 as one of the best four third-place teams.
This was a feat that raised the morale of Malawi players to the highest levels, and facing Morocco, they have nothing to lose and everything to win against the 1976 champions.
At a prematch press conference covered by CAFonline, Flames vice-captain John Banda maintained his earlier belief that the game against Morocco “is the biggest game of our lives, and we are looking forward to it”.
“The team is physically and emotionally well. We respect Morocco, but we don’t fear them. We played this opponent twice three years ago and I was present in all games.
“It is true that they are favorites, but we are here to play our game and pursue our goals.”
His coach, Mario Marinica assured that they have prepared for this game as they have done in previous games.
“We are organized and we will take the field with full determination. We continue to work together. Defensively Malawi is a strong team with very good players.
“We will try to play the best way. We have faced all difficulties with hard work and confidence.”
This will be the first meeting between the two sides at the AFCON, while Morocco have only lost one of their last 11 games when facing an opponent in the competition for the first time (W7 D3) – 2-3 v Gabon in 2012.
Malawi will contest their first game in the knockout stages of the AFCON, in what will be their 10th game in the competition overall. They have only won two of the previous nine (D2 L5), but are unbeaten in two games coming into this one (W1 D1).
In their first AFCON appearance in 1984 in Côte d’Ivoire, the Flames made a huge impression when they led 2-0 against Super Eagles of Nigeria but the game ended 2-2 and went on to lose 0-1 to Ghana and 0-3 against Algeria.
In their second in Angola in 2010, they stirred some excitement in their opening game when they beat north African giants Tunisia 3-1 but lost their consequent matches — 0-2 against the hosts Angola and 1-3 against Mali.
Having had 3 points, Malawi needed a draw to reach their first-ever quarter-final qualification.
Since the start of the 2019 tournament, Morocco have kept a clean sheet in five of their seven games at the AFCON, conceding only three goals in total. Two of those goals did come in their most recent outing, however, in a 2-2 draw with Gabon on MD3.
Malawi had the lowest possession average of any team during the group stage of this year’s AFCON (31.5%). Indeed, they have recorded a sequence of 10+ passes from open play only twice so far, which is also a competition-low figure.
As well as being Morocco’s top scorer in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations (two goals), Sofiane Boufal has also created 10 chances for a teammate; one of only two players in the current tournament with 10+ during the group stage, along with Algeria’s Youcef Belaïli (12).
Morocco qualified on top of Group B on seven points. After two wins 1-0 over Ghana and 2-0 over Comoros, Atlas Lions came from behind twice to have a 2-2 draw with Gabon. A late Achraf Hakimi goal made Morocco finish on top of the group.
This is the Atlas Lions’ 18th appearance in this competition, as they are eyeing their second title, almost 46 years after winning their lone title in 1976.
At the prematch press conference, Morocco coach Vahid Halilhodzic said: “The players are aware that they must have a combative attitude. The competition has shown here that there are no favorites.
“Everyone can move forward. We will enter this game with maximum concentration. Fortunately, our players are ready to give their contribution.
We came here to win, and our hope is to qualify. I am happy because this is a generation that in a few years will make history. They have the potential to move on”.
His midfielder Salim Amallah said: “It won’t be an easy game. We had the opportunity to watch Malawi games. They have excellent teamwork and that counts a lot for any team. Our confidence levels are up and positive.
“We hope we can count on Achraf (Hakimi) for the game. He is a player we need to give confidence to the group”.
The Flames, Zimbabwe and Comoros were the only representatives from the COSAFA ahead of favorites to the tournament — Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique as well as Tanzania and Kenya from the SADC region.
Zimbabwe were sent out leaving just the Comoros and Flames for the Round of 16 but Comoros are also out after losing 1-2 to the hosts Cameroun.
Comoros were in the same Group C with Morocco, Gabon and Egypt and qualified as best third-placed team with a historical 3-2 win over west Africa giants, Ghana in their last qualifying match.
Ghana’s loss saw them disgracefully bow out of the tournament leaving the stage to fellow west Africans — Burkina Faso, Gabon, Nigeria, Guinea, Gambia, Cameroon, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Equatorial Guinea.
So far, Gabon, Nigeria, Guinea and Comoros are out while North African giants Algeria will not be able to defend their title having miserably performed in which they finished with a single point from a 0-0 draw with Sierra Leone and two losses 0-1 to Equatorial Guinea and 1-3 against Côte d’Ivoire.
Algeria have left the stage on the hands of fellow north Africans Tunisia, Morocco and AFCON seven-time champions Egypt 1957, 1959, 1986, 1998 and back-to-back in 2006, 2008 and 2010 — all from 25 appearances.—Additional Stats by CAFonline