Nigeria humbled by Hadji's strike

Morocco 1 Nigeria 0
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The Independent Online

Nigeria clearly did not read the runes of this African Nations Cup. After the favourites Cameroon and Senegal were both held to draws in their opening games, an even worse fate befell Jay-Jay Okocha and co yesterday.

The Bolton midfielder, like most of his Nigerian teammates, including five other Premiership players, failed to live up to his top-billing and suffered the biggest upset of this tournament so far - a 1-0 defeat to Morocco.

As a subdued but not dejected Okocha said here at the Mustapha Ben Jannet stadium: "We have made it hard for ourselves to reach the quarter-finals." Arguably worse still was the accusation by his manager Christian Chukwu that his players had simply, "not taken the game seriously".

It certainly seemed that way against a Morocco side not so far from home, and which profited from virtually all the support inside the compact arena.

But while Nigeria could boast players from Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton, the Moroccans, who deserved their victory, made up for a lack of stars with a far more coherent team effort.

Some members of the Morocco team are familiar to fans of Coventry City, Sunderland and Fulham, but it was to their captain Noureddine Naybet that they looked for inspiration. A veteran of five Nations Cups, the Deportivo La Coruña defender has played over 150 times for the Atlas Lions and he showed the benefits of that by easily subduing the under-performing Portsmouth striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni. Alongside him was the former Fulham squad member Abdeslam Ouaddou, who showed that he was probably sold too quickly by the Cottagers, as the Rennes defender also had an accomplished match.

But it was Nigeria who let themselves down, as Okocha and Chukwu admitted. Barely out of first gear in the first half, they raised their game a notch after the break but failed to seriously threaten the Morocco goal. With 54 minutes gone, Aiyegbeni was 10 yards out but shot low and wide and soon after his strike-partner Julius Aghahowa was given space for a header which he also misdirected.

On the warmest day of the tournament so far, that should have suited the Nigerians, their status as third favourites, and prospective semi-finalists, looked a bad prognosis. Drawing comfort from the Nigerians' failure to create any chances of note, with Arsenal's Nwankwo Kanu among the chief culprits, Morocco grew in confidence.

Their goal was a deserved reward for their patience, and even the spectators watching from nearby rooftops must have respected the efforts of their north African rivals. It came 14 minutes from the end, when Abdelkrim Kissi found Youssef Hadji and the Bastia player, on as a substitute, turned and found the bottom corner. If the name sounds familiar it is because he is the younger brother of the out-of-favour Aston Villa striker Mustafa, himself a former star of the national team.

Nigeria, who had a Macclesfield Town player George Abbey playing at full-back, could not find an adequate response, and not even Okocha, on such sparkling form of late for his club, could help his team find an equaliser.

Nigeria (4-4-2): Enyeama; Yobo, Babayaro, Okoronkwo, Abbey; Utaka, Kanu (Ikedia, 72), Okocha, Olofinsana; Aiyegbeni (Agali, 80), Aghahowa.

Morocco (4-4-2): Fouhami; Regragui, Ouaddou, Naybet, El Karkouri; Mokhtari (El Yaagoubi, 71), Safri, Kissi, Kharja; Chamakh, Zairi (Hadji, 59).

Referee: F Ndoye (Senegal).

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