The Atlas Lions of Morocco defeated the Elephants of Ivory Coast 2-0 in Abidjan to qualify for a 5th Fifa World Cup after 20 years of trying.
Two first half goals were enough for the Atlas Lions to register a shock away win at the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium, where thousands of local supporters were devastated as the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations winners failed to qualify for a fourth successive Fifa World Cup.
After a slow start that lasted few minutes, Morocco took matters into their hands thanks to a better organized midfield that allowed a fluid game.
Amrabat Noureddine was served to the right of Ivory Coast area but he had Serge Aurier to beat which he couldn’t achieve.
A similar action took place moments later, with the Tottenham right-back emerging the stronger. He appeared to be keeping the house safe in the absence of Eric Bailly, who was facing suspension.
Boussoufa Mbark, was another awesome forward manning the Moroccan attack. He had two clean goal chances that went futile, with one that could have ended in a penalty call when he was tripped in the box.
Mbark’s third confrontation with defender Wilfried Kanon resulted in the game’s first yellow card shown to the Ivorian in the 11th minute. The Elephants gradually got in the groove, with Gervinho and Max Gradel combining beautifully to create some worthwhile moves but they were short of any threat for the Atlas Lions goalkeeper Kajoui Monir.
By the 20th minute, the visitors retook control of proceedings and were winning almost all the balls, ground and air, as the Ivorians retreated on the defensive.
Gervinho broke out on a solo move but his finish went over the crossbar whereas he had just the goalkeeper to beat.
Immediately after, Morocco took the lead from the right flank when Diraar Nabil slotted home a loose ball from close range to put the Lions ahead by the 25th minute.
It was a shock goal that silenced the 34,000 seater facility, but that was not all.
As coach Marc Wilmots charges pushed forth in a bid to claim a quick equalizer, the Moroccans exploited the holes left behind and soon besieged the hosts back-half. A free-kick 15 yards out was deflected for a corner-kick which Morocco captain Elmouttaqui Medhi knocked into the back net, to hand the North Africans a two-goal lead by the half-hour mark.
The Ivorians had successive opportunities to score at least a goal before the break but the Moroccan defence was disciplined enough to safeguard their lead, which stood until halftime.
Morocco began the second half like they ended the first standza, with playmaker Belhanda Younes coming close to improving his side’s lead to 3-0 but his goal effort was fortunately thwarted after by the Ivorian defence after goalkeeper Gbohouo Sylvain was completely beaten. The session grew in tempo, with both sides showing strong determination to snaffle the sole ticket at stake to the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia.
However, the Lions were not ceding any ground for the Ivorians to pull level. Every ball was chased for win by the visitors who have set sights on a fifth World Cup qualification 20 years after their last participation.
Gervinho was replaced by former Chelsea winger Salomon Kalou, with time running in favour of Herve Renard and his team.
The scoreline remained the same by the 75th minute, and could have improved for Morocco if Mbark had slotted home his long range effort, which Gbohouo parried with ease.
Some Ivorian fans began to throw water bottles to express their anger and frustration, with one pitch invader successfully finding his way on to the middle of the park to unveil a banner, calling for the release of Ivory Coast’s former president Laurent Gbagbo, who is facing trials in The Hague.
By the final quarter hour, Ivory Coast abandoned the fight, as Morocco took full control of the field. And so it would be until the final whistle as the North Africans snatched Group C’s ticket to Russia 2018.