Apart from a few minor exceptions, Morocco coach Herve Renard’s record in the African context has been fairly blemish-free.
Perhaps you could argue that the Frenchman should have taken Zambia a little closer to the 2014 World Cup - and certainly past the Nations Cup group stage in 2013 - but his erstwhile successes with Chipolopolo, and then the Cote d’Ivoire, have established him as one of the finest coaches in the history of the African game.
However, could he be hurtling towards his greatest failure to date?
When he took over as Morocco boss in February 2016 - replacing national legend Badou Zaki - Renard’s brief was straightforward and attainable, with the Atlas Lions then at a low ebb having missed out on the 2015 Nations Cup after refusing to host the tournament during the Ebola epidemic.
Renard promptly oversaw an unbeaten conclusion to the North Africans’ Nations Cup campaign and, with his nous and a young, talented squad rife with attacking options, there was every reason to believe that Morocco would be dark horses in Gabon.
Indeed, this side certainly looked more accomplished - with over half a year to go until the tournament - than Renard’s Elephants did only months before their successful sojourn to Equatorial Guinea.
However, since securing a spot at the continental showpiece, three things have happened to dampen expectations.
First of all, they were drawn in an ominous Group of Death, having been pitted in Group C alongside the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo and reigning champions the Cote d’Ivoire.
It was surely inevitable that Renard would find himself up against his former employers, and that final showdown - the Lions and the Elephants clash in Oyem in their final group game on January 24 -could take on titanic proportions.
Secondly, while Renard’s Morocco may have eased to Gabon after seeing off Cape Verde, Libya and Sao Tome e Principe in qualification, they have looked much less fluid in their opening World Cup qualifying matches - a staid 0-0 draw against the Panthers and a resolute goalless stalemate with the Ivorians in Marrakech.
Looking ahead to the Afcon, with a view on solving his side’s lack of potency in front of goal, the French coach had no shortage of mesmerising attacking options as he looked to forge a coherent offensive unit from the Lions’ talent pool.
However, his side are suddenly left looking a little toothless after star forward Younes Belhanda was ruled out of the competition with a broken toe, and Renard bizarrely opted to overlook Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech for his provisional squad.
Belhanda’s (pictured) absence comes as a significant blow for the Lions, with the talented playmaker currently enjoying a fine season with Ligue 1’s surprise package OGC Nice as they look to mount an unlikely title challenge.
Beyond his pace and his improving quality in the final third, Belhanda also boasts the intelligence to knit a team together, and while the likes of Youssef El Arabi, Youssef En-Nesyri, Mehdi Carcela and Nordin Amrabat can all carry the ball and outpace defenders, could any be the team’s creative hub?
The baton might fall to either Sofiane Boufal - an explosive player not known for his team play - or Mbark Boussoufa, whose best days are now several years behind him.
Perhaps the natural pick would have been Ajax’s Ziyech.
The 23-year-old - a summer signing from FC Twente - has taken to life with the Dutch giants with ease, and has scored five and contributed six assists in 17 Eredivisie appearances [for Twente and Ajax] so far this season. He’s also impressed in the Europa League - scoring two in four - and has proved to be a lively, probing presence for Peter Bosz’s side.
Beyond his inventiveness and set-piece menace, Ziyech has also proved himself to be a versatile talent, having impressed as a leading man, on the right flank or, more regularly, in the centre of the midfield.
Considering his assets, it’s quite remarkable that Renard has opted to overlook the former Heerenveen man.
While reports in the Dutch media on Monday appeared to suggest that Ziyech could yet make a late run for Morocco’s squad, his name was omitted from the Lions selection named on CAF’s website, with Renard reportedly opting to overlook the Ajax man due to concerns about his suitability as a substitute or as part of the travelling party.
While it might be a fine example of Renard foresight, it still appears to be unlikely logic considering that Ziyech had started four of Morocco’s last six matches before November, scoring five, and hasn’t been a substitute for the national side since March.
The Frenchman’s pedigree typically ensures that he gets the benefit of the doubt, but if a Morocco side without Ziyech struggle to ignite in Gabon, Renard’s decision to omit him may rank among his gravest errors.
By Ed Dove
@EddyDove on Twitter