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2023 AFCON Day 5 Preview: Morocco debut with high expectations, neighbors Zambia and DR Congo clash

After four days of surprise results it is difficult to know what to expect from each day of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations keeping followers and supporters on the edge of their seats with suspense. On the fifth day of action all the focus is on Group F as the first round of group stage matches concludes Wednesday. Morocco look to break a miserable start for North African nations and live up to the high expectations created by their fourth place finish at the 2022 FIFA World Cup while DR Congo and Zambia attempt to make their case as teams to watch. Read more on both matches below:

Group F: Morocco vs Tanzania 17:00 GMT

The first match of the day features a duel that most resembles a “David vs Goliath” clash when the Taifa Stars of Tanzania face off with one of the favorites to win the competition, Morocco. Before the competition this match appeared to be a straightforward victory for the Atlas Lions but the Tanzanian team and its supporters are dreaming big after seeing some major upsets so far in Ivory Coast. Traditional North African giants Egypt and Algeria could only manage draws against Mozambique and Angola while Tunisia fell to an inspired Namibia team which adds a bit of uncertainty before Wednesday’s opening clash.

However the reality is that Morocco remains heavy favorites. Head coach Walid Regragui acknowledged the surprise results but stated his team is focused on claiming three points. Bayern Munich full back Noussair Mazraoui is the only injury related absence for the Atlas Lions and it appears that center back captain Romain Saïss will be available as well as Hakim Ziyech after returning to training from minor injuries. Regragui mentioned that two or three players are uncertain to play but did not specify which players.

The Moroccan defense is formidable regardless even if Saïss and Mazraoui miss out with top goalkeeper Yassine Bounou forming the backbone of a defensive line that also includes Achraf Hakimi, West Ham United central defender Nayef Aguerd and defensive midfielder Sofyan Amrabat. Yahia Attiyat-Allah, a favorite of Regragui from his time with Wydad AC, should be selected at the left back position.

Striker Youssef En-Nesyri scored twice in a preparation friendly against Sierra Leone and should lead the attacking line. Sofiane Boufal scored as well and could line up on the opposite flank from Ziyech but Abde Ezzalzouli and Tarik Tissoudali are other reliable options who can operate on the wing. Azzedine Ounahi is a creative option in the center of the midfield who will be joined by one of Selim Amallah, Amine Harit or Bilal El Khannous.

Oddly, the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria became a point of discussion before this match through Tanzania’s Algerian head coach Adel Amrouche. Amrouche paid his respects to the accomplishments of the Atlas Lions but caused controversy by accusing the Royal Moroccan Football Federation of influencing many decisions within the Confederation of African Football including even the decision as to who referees matches. The coach also limited expectations for his young team stating their goal is to “grow and develop” at the competition.

Young Africans center back Bakari Nwamnyeto will anchor the defense with a capable goalkeeper behind him in Aishi Manula of Simba SC. Simba captain Mohamed Hussein could get the nod at left back where his stamina could be useful if utility player Novatus Dismas is used elsewhere, perhaps in the midfield.

The issue for Tanzania is the attack which continues to be toothless. Talisman striker and captain Mbwana Samatta is a strong force at the top of the formation with another capable veteran in Simon Msuva but the service is lacking. Kibu Dennis is a potential option with his speed on the wing and either Feisal Salum or Australia-based midfielder Charles M’Mombwa will be the primary central playmaker. Two defensive midfielders are likely to be used with Egyptian-based Himid Mao Mkami and Dismas or Young Africans players Mudathir Yahya and Yassin Mzamiru the candidates to partner Mkami.

Group F: DR Congo vs Zambia 20:00 GMT

The second match on Wednesday looks set to be a more even battle with DR Congo and Zambia doing battle to finish up the first round of the group stage matches. DR Congo arrive after a strong 2023 under head coach Sébastien Desabre who turned things around for the Leopards after a disastrous start to the qualifying campaign. The Congolese team meets a Zambia side coached by Avram Grant whose team boasts a strong attack in what promises to be an entertaining clash.

DR Congo coach Desabre praised the collective mentality of his group and the eagerness of his players to thrive after the Leopards missed out on the 2021 edition. The Congolese defense is led by defender Chancel Mbemba who is in excellent form for club Olympique Marseille. Mbemba stated that the younger members of the squad are ready for the occasion and he is happy to use his experience to lead the group.

Mbemba will be in the heart of the defensive line with Lorient player Gédéon Kalulu on the right and likely Arthur Masuaku on the left if Joris Kayembe is not in the eleven. Former PSG youth produc Lionel Mpasi appears set to be the goalkeeper, now playing his football in Ligue 2 with Rodez Aveyron. Charles Pickel, based in Italy’s second tier Serie B, will be the defensive midfielder likely paired with Samuel Moutoussamy. A strong attack features captain Cédric Bakambu at the striker position with Yoane Wissa and Théo Bongonda the favorites to occupy the wings. However, look out for talented wingers Meschak Elia and Gaël Kakuta as well as striker Simon Banza who is in sensational form with Portuguese club Braga (14 goals in 15 league matches).

Zambia coach Avram Grant has plenty of experience at the AFCON having led Ghana to the runner-up position in 2015 and fourth place in 2017. The Israeli tactician emphasized the opening minutes of the match as the most important priority for Chipolopolo whose goal is to avoid being overwhelmed by the strong Congolese attack. Captain Stoppila Sunzu, a hero from Zambia’s 2012 AFCON-winning side, will marshal the defense from the center likely paired with Frankie Musonda or Power Dynamos stalwart Dominic Chanda with TP Mazembe’s Tandi Mwape a more distant possibility.

A defensive midfield presence may be required for the big stage with ZESCO United player Kelvin Mapumbu or Golden Mafwenta vying for a place if Grant does not select both as he did in the recent friendly against Cameroon. Emmanuel Banda is at full fitness to be a more creative midfield option along with Kings Kangwa, who arrives after a stretch on the bench with club Red Star Belgrade. The Zambian attack is its strongest asset led by Leicester City poacher Patson Daka who will be supported by Saudi-based forward Fashion Sakala and either Lecce winger Lameck Banda or another European-based attacker, Edward Chilufya.

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