El Mehdi El Moubarik's penalty handed former champions Morocco a nervy, close 1-0 win over a hard fighting Gambia as the young Atlas Lions began their Group C campaign with victory at the Stade de Nouadhibou on Tuesday evening.
In a tight and cagy match with few and far in between chances, it was the North Africans who would walk off with victory and move second in the standings behind Ghana who thrashed debutants Tanzania 4-0 on the opening match earlier on.
El Moubarik scored from the penalty spot to give Morocco the lead after 23 minutes, but this was not until the initial penalty was ordered to be retaken.
Oussama Zemraoui had stepped up to take the spot kick after Gambia defender Edrissa Ceesay had been adjudged to have handled the ball inside the area as he tried to block an El Mehdi Maouhoub header off a cross.
Zemraoui saw his penalty saved by Gambian keeper Lamin Saidy, but the referee ordered for a retake as the shot stopper was flagged for coming off his line early. Morocco resorted to switching penalty takers, El Moubarik stepping up to score the opener.
It had been a balanced start to the match though Morocco were more direct in their approach. Achraf Ramzy had the first sniff at goal for the North Africans with a volley inside the box off a corner that went just over.
After conceding though, Gambia's Baby Scorpions were more adventurous going forward and came close nine minutes to the break, but were denied by the Moroccan keeper Alaa Bellarouch. The shot stopper spread his body nicely at the near post to block a shot from Alagie Saine after he had initially spilled the ball off a freekick.
The second half was closely contested with Gambia constantly trying to break the lines and progress to find goal scoring opportunities. However, they could not pick the right passes and seldom had a shot on target.
In contrast, Morocco had two efforts come close with Mohammed Ammine's freekick rolling over the bar while substitute Tawfik Bentayeb had another go just wide after curling beyond the wall.
Mamadou Bojang had a late effort for the Gambians when he was sent through on goal after some good link up play, but he was flagged offside as he went to pull the trigger.
What they said:
Mattar M'Boge (Head Coach, The Gambia)
Our boys did very well today and looking at what happened in the game they responded very well. Morocco came to contain us and that showed we're being respected by our opponents. They changed their tactics to restrain us so congratulations to the coach and the players.
Zakaria Aboub (Head Coach, Morocco)
It was important to win today against a very strong Gambian team. I want to congratulate my counterpart and his team because they're a very organized team. My players did well to overcome the challenge Gambia posed today. I'm so proud of the players.