30.03.2016 13:45 h

Renard hails Africa Cup qualifiers Morocco

New Morocco coach Herve Renard hailed his team Wednesday after they became the first qualifiers for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon.

The 47-year-old who guided Zambia and the Ivory Coast to the most prized African football trophy was speaking after a 2-0 home win over Cape Verde sealed first place in Group F.

"I was amazed by the determination they displayed," he said after a second-half brace from Youssef El Arabi secured victory in Marrakech.

"It is important that we maintain in future games the same mindset that was shown when we beat the No. 1-ranked African team twice within four days.

"What we achieved was considerable, but we must remain calm and begin preparing for the finals," he told reporters.

Renard replaced Badou Zaki as coach of underperforming Morocco a month ago and made a winning debut last Saturday with a 1-0 success in Cape Verde.

The coach, who believes wearing a white shirt on match days brings luck, sprang to prominence in 2012 when he steered Zambia to Africa Cup glory.

Pre-tournament no-hopers, the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) beat Didier Drogba-captained Ivory Coast on penalties in a Libreville final after 120 goalless minutes.

Perennial underachievers Ivory Coast were next to benefit from Renard, winning the 2015 final against Ghana in Equatorial Guinea on penalties after another goalless decider.

Morocco have set the Frenchman, once a garbage collector and night-time cleaning contractor in Paris, the stiff targets of reaching the 2017 Cup of Nations semi-finals and qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

The Atlas Lions went into back-ot-back qualifiers against Cape Verde trailing on goal difference, but now have an unassailable six-point advantage.

They meet third-place Libya away in June and host minnows Sao Tome e Principe in September, and will finish top on head-to-head records even if they lose both games.

A more probable scenario, however, is two Moroccan victories and a perfect 2017 qualifying record that only Group K leaders Senegal could match.

Moroccan stars include El Arabi, scorer of 10 La Liga goals for Granada this season, and Bayern Munich centre-back Mehdi Benatia.

Renard chose nine players based in France and five in Spain for his first squad. Moroccans with clubs in Germany, Italy, Netherlands, England and Belgium also made the cut.

Two locals, goalkeeper Abdelali M'Hamdi of Renaissance Berkane and defender Mohamed Oulhaj of Raja Casablanca, also got the nod.

While El Arabi scored all three goals in Praia and Marrakech to raise his qualifying total to four, one less than leader Fiston Abdul Razak of Burundi, Benatia missed the Cape Verde games.

Morocco won the Africa Cup for the only time 40 years ago in Ethiopia, finishing one point ahead of Guinea in the lone tournament decided by a mini-league.

The closest they came to matching that feat was in 2004 when a Zaki-coached team finished runners-up to hosts Tunisia.

In six subsequent Cup of Nations, they made four first-round exits, failed to qualify once and were disqualified in 2015 after a late, Ebola virus-linked withdrawal as hosts.