Morocco have, in recent memory, been one of Afcon’s most consistent underperformers.

They failed to make it past the group stage across five tournaments between 2006 and 2013, and in the past three editions have been eliminated twice in the quarter-finals by Egypt and once in the last 16 by Benin.

Saiss played in each of those three knockout stage exits and insists he and the squad are better prepared this time for the unpredictable nature of the competition.

Group opponents Zambia remarkably triumphed at Afcon in 2012, demonstrating that a winner could come from the ranks of outsiders.

“I think it has been a weakness before, that in some games when we were supposed to be the favourite it was more difficult for us,” said 33-year-old Saiss, who is currently playing for Saudi Pro League club Al-Shabab.

“We know everyone is waiting for us and wants to beat us, but we can achieve something great.

“It doesn’t matter the opponent – it is important for us to be focused for every game and not think about the next round. It will be a huge mistake if we do that. The main target at the moment is to get out of the group.

“We need to be ready to suffer because it’s going to be tough. At the World Cup we went far because everyone sacrificed his body to reach the semi-finals.”

Morocco’s shock progress to the last four in Qatar was aided hugely by their backline, with Saiss marshalling his defence supremely to record clean sheets against Croatia, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.

Goalkeeper Bono (now also in Saudi Arabia, with Al Hilal), right-back Achraf Hakimi (Paris St-Germain), left-back Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern Munich) and centre-back Nayef Aguerd (West Ham) were generally selected alongside the captain, who is hoping the Atlas Lions’ defensive solidity continues at Afcon.

“I have a good partnership with Nayef because I have known him for many years and have seen him grow,” Saiss said.

“We have a very good relationship outside of football and that’s important for me. We talk a lot about situations during games and try to improve our partnership.

“There’s just this communication and trust.

“The [whole] team was working hard [at the World Cup] to defend too, to get behind the ball. It helped us and we can see how it’s important to not concede goals in big tournaments.

“I think this is the identity of the team. If we stay solid, we can go really far in the competition.”


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