BAKU: Defending champions Morocco edged out Saudi Arabia 1-0 in their opening Group A soccer clash at the Azal Arena, as the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games got underway in Baku on Monday.
Morocco were by far the better side throughout and Zouheir El Moutaraji wasted a great opportunity early on, while Saudi keeper Habib Alwatyan made several second-half saves.
But substitute Chouaib El Maftoul curled in a deserved winner with 14 minutes to play.
It was the first action of the fourth edition of the Solidarity Games, with the only two previous winners of the football tournament going head-to-head.
With the domestic league season still ongoing, the Moroccan outfit was mainly made up of amateur players from the lower divisions, but they were still superior to their opponents in front of a smattering of spectators at a stadium which is situated 40 kilometres from the capital.
The north Africans really should have taken the lead in the sixth minute, when winger El Moutaraji shanked a shot wide when clean through on goal with Alwatyan stranded.
The chances kept coming for Jamal Sellami’s men, as centre-back Zakaria Al Ayoud headed narrowly off target.
Saudia Arabia managed to frustrate their opponents for the rest of the first half, but were perhaps lucky when Abdulrahman Alkuwaykibi was only shown a yellow card for kicking out at Al Ayoud.
The first shot on target came in the 54th minute when Al Ayoud’s header was kept out by Alwatyan.
Saudi Arabia dropped deep in the last half an hour and were again fortunate not to fall behind.
Midway through the second half 18-year-old midfielder Mohamed Elmorabit rattled the crossbar from long range, before Alwatyan pulled off a fantastic stop to deny Mohamed Kamal on the rebound.
The opening goal finally arrived in the 76th minute as the ball rebounded off Alwatyan to El Jadida attacking midfielder El Maftoul, who picked out the middle of the net with consummate ease from the edge of the box.
Saudi Arabia, who didn’t have a single shot until a speculative effort deep into injury-time, never threatened an equaliser.
Although they missed chances to score a second in the closing moments, Morocco saw out the win to strike first blood in Group A.
They take on Cameroon on Thursday looking to make it back-to-back victories, before Saudi Arabia face hosts Azerbaijan.