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© AP, Jan 22, 2012

Morocco, Tunisia group favorites 'only on paper'


LIBREVILLE, Gabon(AP) Morocco coach Eric Gerets had predicted a tournament of surprises at the African Cup of Nations even before Equatorial Guinea's dramatic victory over Libya and Zambia's shock win over Senegal on the opening night.

The unexpected results will serve as a warning to Morocco ahead of games against co-host Gabon and little-known debutant Niger in Group C.

First, Gerets' team starts against familiar North African rival Tunisia on Monday when the African Cup switches to Gabon and Libreville's new Stade de l'Amitie - also the venue for the Feb. 12 final.

The match takes on added importance for the Moroccans and Tunisians, with both hoping to be in good position ahead of the tricky encounters against lesser known teams later in the first round.

Before Morocco and Tunisia meet in a repeat of the 2004 final, Gabon and first-timer Niger will battle in the group opener to see who will emerge as top underdog and main challenger to the North Africans.

Gabon now has much to live up to after the Equatorial Guineans' opening victory in front of their home fans.

''Tomorrow the legs will talk,'' said Gabon striker and captain Daniel Cousin, the former Hull City and Lens player.

On Saturday, the words of Gerets' rang true after the successes of Equatorial Guinea and Zambia in Bata. The Belgian coach said Morocco and Tunisia were favorites to progress from Group C ''only on paper,'' and would - like Libya and the highly rated Senegal - face tough competition.

''What happens on the pitch is sometimes another story because there is always surprises,'' said Gerets, one of a number of coaches no doubt worried by the threat of the underdogs.

The fear of the unknown for both Morocco and Tunisia later in the tournament has made Monday's matchup critical with both targeting a strong start.

The regional rivals haven't met at a Cup of Nations since the final eight years ago, when Tunisia triumphed, but know each other well and share similar philosophies of strong organization and defensive discipline.

Morocco has unfinished business against Tunisia after that final loss, but was already tipped to emerge as group winner under the clever tactics of Gerets and with the talents of Adel Taarabt and Marouane Chamakh, who both play in England's Premier League.

''We are not afraid. I think we need to concentrate on our group because we have a super team and so we need to show everyone,'' said Queens Park Rangers midfielder Taarabt.

Tunisia differs slightly in that Sami Trabelsi's squad has a bigger contingent of home-based players, although Auxerre striker Issam Jemaa is its all-time leading scorer

The last country to win the Cup of Nations before Egypt's three straight titles, Tunisia struggled in qualifying and was recently outclassed by Ivory Coast in a warmup match.

But a game against Morocco - even if it is in the heart of central Africa - could inspire Trabelsi's team to find form. The return of striker Jemaa from injury could also be a boost after the team's spokesman said he was available for selection.

''The match against Morocco is a big game for us and we need the three points,'' forward Amine Chermiti said. ''It's important to win to get the confidence to continue. It's important on a North Africa level, our opponent is a neighbor against whom we have a long footballing history.''

Gabon's ''Panthers'' hope to repeat Equatorial Guinea's winning start as co-host, but won't want any of the momentary chaos that accompanied the opening game in Bata, where thousands of fans forced their way into the stadium's outer complex.

Libreville's Stade de l'Amitie has seen frenzied final preparations ahead of Gabon's moment, with soldiers brought in to clean the roads that lead from the airport to the 40,000-capacity venue. Local fans hope Gabon is also ready for Niger.

''This team (Niger) is a good team, a very physical team,'' Gabon's German coach, Gernot Rohr, said on Sunday at the home team's hotel. ''We respect this team and I think this team comes here to make (play) an offensive game.''

Gabon's squad won't be rewarded with $1 million, like Equatorial Guinea's players were, if it wins its opening game. But the country's president, Ali Bongo, did visit the players at their training session later on Sunday.

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Follow Gerald Imray at http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP


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