Atlas Lions are on the prowl


French coach Henri Michel has brought pride back to the Atlas Lions and transformed the squad into one of the teams to be feared in the coming CAF African Cup of Nations.

“We've got a good group of around 20 players who fit into the style of football that we want to play. We’ve had a very good week,” Michel said recently.

Morocco managed to hold France to a 2-2 draw in the Stade de France before strolling to a 3-0 win over African powerhouses Senegal.

These two results are evidence of the wind of change that has blown through Moroccan football since the French coach took over.

These recent performances, coupled with a 2-0 win over Namibia in October, have seen Morocco climb back up to 39th position in the Fifa rankings - a big improvement on the 48th place they occupied at their lowest ebb in April 2007.

The North Africans' transformation can in large part be attributed to the return of someone who very much knows the ins and outs of Moroccan football.

Henri Michel coached the Atlas Lions from 1995-2000 and was at the helm of top domestic club Raja Casablanca from 2003-2004, so he knows plenty about the country - and its footballers.

“I’m lucky enough to be coaching some of the lads who played for me at the Olympic Games in Sydney,” he explains.

As well as a vast amount of local knowledge, Michel also has another advantage - namely the rare distinction of having led four different countries to the final phase of a Fifa World Cup: France in 1986, Cameroon in 1994, Morocco in 1998 and Ivory Coast in 2006.

This wealth of experience seems to be rubbing off on players who took time to shake off the disappointment of losing out to Tunisia on the final day of qualifiers for Germany 2006. As soon as he had taken charge again, the man who coached France to the UEFA European Championship title in 1984 decided that Morocco needed to get back to basics.

“He said we needed to be dedicated, to respect each another and the coaching staff and be willing to put the hours in,” admitted Bordeaux striker Marouane Chamakh.

Apart from the wealth of experience provided by their coach, Morocco can call on a number of players plying their trade in the upper echelons of European football, particularly in France.

More than half of the squad who played against France and Senegal have Ligue 1 experience, with a third of the current squad having cut their teeth in the highly reputed French training academies.

“Everyone knows how tough the playing conditions and the climate are in Africa,” says Michel. “If we can get through the first round in Ghana, then we can really start to live the dream.”

Ghana is very much a dress rehearsal for the real matter in hand, however.

“Morocco failed to make it through to the last two competitions, so what we really want is to qualify for the 2010 World Cup,” he adds.