African Nations Cup: Morocco sink Niger for late pride
Morocco salvaged some pride when beating Niger 1-0 in Libreville in both teams' final Group C game.
Younes Belhanda settled a drab affair when rifling Marouane Chamakh's pass into the roof of the net just 11 minutes from time.
Both sides went into the game looking for their first points after losing their opening matches.
But Niger go home without avoiding defeat at a finals where they were making their tournament debut.
Eric Gerets Morocco coach
“We are like a boxer in the ring who gets a kick in the head, he's down but he will stand up and fight again. My players tried to leave this Nations Cup with their heads held high, (but) having said that our campaign was catastrophic”
After coming within a whisker of earning their first point at a Nations Cup against Tunisia on Friday, only to be undone by an 89th-minute winner in a 2-1 defeat , the Nigeriens fielded an unchanged line-up.
In contrast, Morocco made seven changes as coach Eric Gerets sought to avoid the ignominy of losing to the Nations Cup minnows.
But it was one of those retained, Belhanda, who was making things happen, as he curled a left footer over from 25 yards before Youssef Hadji fluffed his lines following a decent cut-back from the byline.
After Belhanda threatened again and Issoufou Boubacar finally registered a tame Niger shot on target, full-back Badr El Kaddouri and Mbark Boussoufa cut open the Niger defence only for goalkeeper Daouda Kassaly to smother the former's strike.
Moments later, Moussa Maazou hit the crossbar as he controlled a deep pass neatly on his thigh before thumping a spectacular volley that clipped the woodwork.
Before the break, Morocco captain Houssine Kharja cut an angry figure as he was stretchered off - meaning the Atlas Lion would not be able to add to his tally of three goals, only equalled by Angola's Manucho and now Gabon's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as well .
Rolland Courbis Niger coach
“We didn't attain our objectives so I congratulate those 'experts' who said Niger would finish fourth, we're fourth. Niger has lots of qualities and limits, but we were in a difficult group”
Playing before just a few hundred specators inside the Stade de l'Amitie, Niger threatened first after the restart as Abdoul Karim stung the hands of rookie goalkeeper Mohamed Amsif with a fierce strike from 30 yards.
As the game entered the final quarter, Belhanda teed up Boussoufa, who forced another fine save from the impressive Kassaly, before the provider turned goalscorer himself in the 79th minute.
There was a hint of offside as Marouane Chamakh picked up the ball all alone inside the Niger area before he checked back to play in Belhanda, who left Kassaly with no chance as he smashed home.
Late on, Abdoul Karim almost earned Niger their first point of the Nations Cup when he connected superbly well again, only for another powerful 30-yard drive to whistle inches over the crossbar.
Ultimately, Niger will go home with heads held relatively high after fulfilling pre-tournament ambitions of not being ridiculed , despite their three losses, as well as learning for the future.
The role of coach Harouna Doula, dropped in favour of French assistant Rolland Courbis during the finals, is unclear and the African coach of 2011 may think twice about staying on after his relegation.
Gerets, meanwhile, must now convince the Moroccan football federation that he is worthy of retaining his post after the pre-tournament outsiders woefully underperformed at these finals.