CAIRO, Egypt -- Morocco have a hold over the Ivory Coast when it comes to the Africa Cup of Nations, and on Friday they strengthened it in magnificent circumstances. Forget the scoreline, confirmed by a marvellously worked first-half winner from Youssef En-Nesyri; this was as exhilarating a 1-0 win as you will see in a match between fierce rivals and teams hoping to win the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Indeed, if Herve Renard's side maintain this level of performance, they will stand a fine chance of lifting their first title since 1976.
The sight of Renard, Ivory Coast's manager between 2014-15, must breed despair in his former employers. With Morocco, he knocked them out of both the 2017 Cup of Nations and the 2018 World Cup qualifiers; this group stage victory in Cairo, although of less immediate consequence, felt like a fresh statement that at their best, the Atlas Lions are in a different class.
"Thanks to those who hit us all the time: you give us motivation," Renard said afterwards.
Morocco had toiled to a late win over Namibia in their first group game, but the only possible criticism Friday night was that they did not score more. En-Nesyri's 23rd-minute goal was crafted beautifully by a reverse pass from Nordin Amrabat, who had an exceptional game, and the impressive young Leganes striker had chances to score three more. The best, created by a gorgeous dummy from Amrabat shortly before half-time, was kept out by the overworked Sylvain Gbohouo. With a sharper cutting edge, Morocco could have run away with it, but if they keep creating opportunities at this rate, it might not matter.
Morocco played some sweeping, sumptuous football on an immaculate pitch -- a welcome feature of this tournament -- and would have added icing to the cake if Noussair Mazraoui, on as a substitute, had not blasted against the bar from point-blank range shortly before the end. Hakim Ziyech, Mazraoui's Ajax teammate and Morocco's star attraction, did not fire on all cylinders here, his execution slightly awry throughout, but he and his attacking cohort constantly occupied spaces their opponents simply could not smother.
There is no better footballing team in this tournament than Morocco and that remains true by some distance. They were defensively solid too after a rocky start in which the Ivory Coast, fast from the opening kickoff, could have scored within a minute. It took a brilliant clearing header from Romain Saiss, who plays his club football for Wolves, to prevent Jonathan Kodjia's effort from bouncing in. The lively Nicolas Pepe, a major transfer target linked to the Premier League this summer, came close straight after the decisive goal. Substitutes Wilfried Bony and Maxwel Cornet caused chaos late on but this match will be memorable purely for the whirlwind of attacking intent from Renard's team.
"I congratulate my players," Renard said. "It's a team that shows great qualities." They are now guaranteed a spot in the round of 16 although Renard said it was "essential" that they secured a point or more against South Africa on Monday to win Group D. Strong as his side are, he'd rather face one of the third-placed sides than Mali, who would probably lie in wait if they slipped up. Current form suggests that it shouldn't matter much.
Meanwhile, Ivory Coast can't afford to be as carefree about their remaining game. Their threat faded as the game dragged on and after going behind, their attack became increasingly disjointed. There was no place for Wilfried Zaha, who had appeared as a substitute against South Africa but remained on the bench here. Zaha left the stadium looking angry after their first game; you wondered how he would feel this time, given that Ibrahim Kamara's blunt attack apparently had no place for one of the most sought-after players in English football.
Kamara clarified afterwards that he was about to bring on Zaha before Serge Aurier, his right-back, pulled up with a late injury. Yet Cornet and the creaking Bony had already been preferred ahead of him. Namibia, who seem the best possible opponents to help the Elephants escape their rut, might yet find an angry Zaha inflicted upon them from the start. On this evidence Ivory Coast need something extra if they're to contend.
"I hope to go to the end of the tournament," said Renard, who is looking for a third AFCON title of his own. "I think we have to maintain the players' mental state. I cannot tell the future. The Cup of Nations is very strong and we hope to go far."
On this evidence it is hard to believe Morocco won't.