The 2019 African Cup of Nations: Round Two

by | Jun 30, 2019

Africa’s Cup of Nations (AFCON) was getting better, until ‘un-super’ Saturday. But it was still no Women’s World Cup. No VAR yet, for a start. And that’s not necessarily as good a thing as you’d think. Mark Murphy explains. Ish…

Group A: Egypt 2 Democratic Republic of Congo 0; Uganda 1 Zimbabwe 1

Two workmanlike wins out of two for Mo Salah’s Egypt, although it has mostly been Mahmoud Trezeguet’s Egypt so far, as he combined brilliantly with his more lauded colleague two minutes before half-time to clinch the points against Congo’s Democratic Republicans, after Ahmed El-Mohamedy toe-poked home the 25th-minute opening goal (the Premier League could win this tournament yet).

However, the two-goal half-time deficit was unfair on a DRC side whose improvement from their first game shambles could be named after this website. Marcel Tisserand and Jonathan Mpongi hit the frame of the goal on 10 and 39 minutes respectively. And DRC pressed for much of the second half too against an Egyptian side which, as against Zimbabwe, looked to attack on the break but largely didn’t. They look likely group winners, though, which will boost the tournament average crowd stats as it keeps them in the 73,000 Cairo International Stadium unless/until they lose.

Second place was Uganda’s, until their performance and prospects nose-dived after Emanuel Okwi gave them a 12th-minute lead against the up-to-that-point hapless Zimbabweans, netting Abdu Lumala’s saved shot from close range. And I mean STRAIGHT after.

The goal flicked a thousand switches in Zimbabwean heads. And the excellent Khama Billiat side-footed home the leveller from Olidy Karuru’s 40th-minute cross. But, Jesus Christ on a mountain bike, they should have won…easily. Knowledge Musona’s gravitational-pull defying 50th-minute shot against the bar from five yards added to his horror-show tournament. And the laws of physics went momentarily missing when Evans Rusike’s goalbound shot caused a world backspin shortage, stopping on the line after it slipped under keeper Denis Onyango, allowing Onyango to swipe the ball clear.

The teams’ split personalities make predictions of their third-game fate nigh-on impossible. So, just as well that Group A’s decisive games will be on or over by the time most of you read this, such is the tightness of the tournament schedule. Uganda will finish third at worst. But both sides, on-form, would be worthy last-16-ers. From my place in history, I wish them well.

Group B: Nigeria 1 Guinea 0; Madagascar 1 Burundi 0

Two workmanlike wins out of two would be a slightly generous description of Nigeria’s quick qualification for the knockout stages. Replacing Jon Obi Mikel(CHK) with someone who could at least SPELL dynamism didn’t have the galvanising effect may had hoped/expected.

But, in mitigation, it is clear that the earliest, daylight kick-offs in this tournament, in this group too, have been the least dynamic, because of the heat. There’s a reason why Egypt are kicking-off at night(. And both these games in this group suffered in terms of pace and entertainment because of their proximity to the midday sun.

This hasn’t stopped Madagascar being the story of the tournament to date. Marco Ilaimajaritra’s wonderful 76th-minute free-kick decided a less-than-wonderful match under the bluest of Egyptian skies and the most searing of Egyptian heats. And hard though even Saido Berahino tried for Burundi, the result was the right result. And Madagascar’s four points qualifies them for the last-16. Carolus Andriamatsinoro might not be best pleased, still sulking as he wax after the game over his, admittedly superficially puzzling 50th-minute replacement. But most everyone else outside Burundi’s sphere of influence was.

Group C: Senegal 0 Algeria 1; Kenya 3 Tanzania 2

If you’d have said to me that Kenya/Tanzania would be the match of the first two rounds, I’d have said “yeah, maybe.” Two otherwise one class out of their depth teams with their one shot at the three points which might be enough to propel them into the knockout stages. And two forward lines better than two defensive units. I’d even said it myself. But with the Women’s World Cup taking the centre-stage it has deserved for years, I’d said it TO myself.

From the moment Tanzania’s Simon Msuva (middle-name ‘Happygod’) side-footed the impressive Mbwana Samatta’s parried shot into the roof of the net from close range on six minutes, this was a fantastic match. Even Kenya’s normally destructive midfielder Victor Wanyama looked an attacking threat to more than just opponents’ lower limbs. And both sides had star-turns. Samatta was a perky, skilful presence and ended the evening as Tanzania’s only hope. Kenya’s Michael Olunga, meanwhile, was literally and figuratively ‘something else.’

A “’big lad up-front’ causing absolute bloody mayhem,” I tweeted admiringly after a match which his two goals effectively won. The first was a wonderful overhead kick in limited room ten yards out. The second was a fractionally mishit but phenomenally well-placed daisy-cutter into the centre of the corner of the net, which won the game on 80 minutes. The final score could have been more than 3-2. But Kenya finished the stronger and better side. A fabulous match. Happygods, indeed.

Sadio Mane, of ’Sadio Mane’s Senegal,’ got the rough end of the worst decision of even these rank-refereeing-riddled finals, when he was fouled twice in the penalty-box by separate ‘Riyad Mahrez’s Algerian’ defender and the otherwise whistle-happy Janny Sikazwe stood looking at the incident and contented himself that no laws of a merely semi-contact sport had been breached.

Five post-interval minutes, where Algeria upped the pace about two gears, decided this tight match. Youcef Belaili’s fine first touch and precise finish from Sofiane Feghouli’s 49th-minute cross was the game’s only goal, a minute after Feghouli himself nearly broke the deadlock at the end of a similarly incisive, speedy counter-attack. And Senegal disappointingly lacked the guile to break down determined Algerian defending, leaving them and Kenya to contest the group’s third-placed play-off (the loser coming third, natch).

Algeria, meanwhile, are through. And the, for them, mouth-watering prospect of winning an AFCON hosted by bitter footballing rivals Egypt remains a live one.

Group D: Morocco 1 Cote D’Ivoire 0; South Africa 1 Namibia GUESS…

They are calling it the “Group of the One-Nils,” those unimaginative commentators…and those voices inside my head whenever I fear a struggle to reach my word-count target.

South Africa/Namibia actually had nil-nil scrawled all over it until Namibian keeper Loydt Kazapua failed to get much nearer a 68th-minute corner than when it was taken and Bongani Zunga headed into a net emptier than the laws of physics suggest is possible.

The match was almost everything Kenya/Tanzania wasn’t. Two more otherwise one class out of their depth teams with their one shot at the three points which might be enough to propel them into the knockout stages. But no good forwards, so approximately 75 minutes less good football. If 1-0 remains this group’s score of choice, South Africa may yet be propelled into the last 16. Which seems like the sort of “clear-and-obvious” error for which VAR was designed. PLEASE don’t let them get THAT far.

Morocco/Cote D’Ivoire was actually a ‘good one-nil,’ between one-and-a-half good teams. Cote D’Ivoire’s much-maligned (by me) beanpole striker Jonathan Kodja nearly headed Cote D’Ivoire ahead after 33 seconds, denied by Roma Saiss’s fabulous clearance (especially for a first touch of his game). Thereafter, though, they were reliant on flashes of individual skill and ‘combative’ midfielder Serey Die’s supernatural ability to avoid being booked for persistent fouling in EVERY game he plays.

Morocco, meanwhile, put in the tournament’s first consistently good 90 minutes. They should have won by more and suave-yet-temperamental manager Herve “once sacked by Cambridge United” Renard was so impressed with his current charges that he only blew his top (on-camera, anyway) eight times.

Just now, the man who managed Zambia and Cote D’Ivoire to AFCON triumphs looks as if he might be on for a hat-trick. Youssef El-Nesryi beat Cote D’Ivoire’s angular offside-trap on 23 minutes to convert Nordin Amrabat’s excellent reverse pass. And Morocco showed many more glimpses of that sort of class, which this tournament has largely lacked to-date. They’d be my tip for the top if that wouldn’t condemn them to not winning another game in Egypt.

Group E: Tunisia 1 Mali 1; Angola 0 Mauritania 0

Atrocious though the AFCON’s officiating continues to be (“Scottish” would be too KIND a term), there was no “Graham Poll” in the Tunisia/Mali game, despite the lengthy insistence of Eurosport com-box duo, Dave Farrar and Adam Virgo, that Diade Samassekou was booked in the first half when he was cautioned ‘again’ midway through the second half.

The confusion WAS bad refereeing…and this clear and obvious cock-and-balls-up was within VAR’s remit. Sadio Mane’s favourite ref, Janny Sikazwe (see above), booked Samassekou for a foul committed by Amadou Haidara. And when Samassekou pointed out the error, Sikazwe booked Haidara too. Virgo ‘explained’ that the second booking was for dissent, which was invisible to others’ naked eyes. Ergo, all sorts of com-box panic (“are we in Graham Poll territory?”)…until some smartarse nerd (me) replied to Eurosport’s tweet on the issue. Then, without contemporary explanation, the matter was dropped from the commentary. You’re welcome.

Mali were perhaps fortunate to get a point. Tunisia dropped opening-game-keeper Farouk Ben Mustapha after his handling error gifted Angola their equaliser. And Hassan Mouez demonstrated why he was second choice in the first place by all-but-throwing Samassekou’s 60th-minute corner into his own net, countless TV replays failing to explain quite how he forced the ball over the line from further out than some open goal misses by attackers in Egypt.

Tunisia deserved their luck when (and I’ll excuse your befuddlement, Sunderland fans) the perpetually-involved Whabi Kazri’s 70th-minute free-kick was diverted almost 90 degrees into the net by a defensive wall deflection. After a dull first half, Tunisia in particular had contributed to a second-half of rather better quality than the refereeing…or (briefly) commentating. Neither side is yet guaranteed qualification, Both should qualify.

For such a low-scoring tournament, 22 games was a long wait for the first nil-nil draw. And Angola’s frustrating 90 minutes should not have ended nil-nil. Wilson Eduardo’s miss of the tournament competition entry will live longer in the memory than the rest of the match where Eurosport co-commentator Stewart Robson’s mantra was “they’ve got away with that” as mistake-upon-mistake pock-marked the play.

Eduardo reached Gelson Dala’s low, far from pacey cross four yards from goal and virtually stood on the ball, watching in horror as his ‘shot’ dribbled a yard wide. Late on, he had a glorious headed chance, from the corner of the six-yard box. But memories of his open goal miss were still fresh and NO-ONE was surprised when his effort ballooned harmlessly towards .

The closest Angola came to a first-half goal was Mauritania keeper Souleimane Brahim’s efforts to turn a harmlessly overhit long ball into a slapstick classic, misjudging a high but regular bounce by some feet and having to keep the ball out of the net he’d just emptied with an excellent full-stretch tip wide. It was that sort of game.

Group F: Cameroon 0 Ghana 0; Guinea-Bissau 0 Benin 0

You wait 22 games for a nil-nil draw and then two come at once. The Cameroon/Ghana stalemate was the sort of cagey game you’d expect from an opening game, or if both sides had won their opening game. In fact, it was the sort of game that tournament history suggests would be a final between these two sides.

And that is still possible. Cameroon actually look slightly better than at this stage of the 2017 tournament they ended up winning. And though Ghana have work to do yet to qualify, Guinea-Bissau don’t yet look the worst team against which to do that work (see below). Introducing the 94-year-old Asamoah Gyan from the bench smacked of desperation, though.

Cameroon had the best of the chances going, especially before half-time, mostly from outside the box, with Ghanaian keeper Richard Ofori twice making important, if relatively routine saves. although Ghana sub Kwabena Owusu thumped the crossbar in the midst of Ghana’s one good spell, late on. And CAF’s website team were bamboozled by it all, the report correctly identifying a “barren” match, the headline conjuring an “epic struggle” from a magic hat.

You wait 22 games for a nil-nil draw and then THREE come along at once. Steve Munie could have beaten Guinea-Bissau on his own, except for…(Huddersfield Town fans can finish that sentence as they wish). In fairness, he came closest with a chance he part-created himself with a determined run between the Guinea-Bissau’s centre-backs, before Jonas Mendes saved his 37th-minute shot.

He headed badly over, however, on 75 minutes, when unmarked eight yards out. And by this stage it was a mini-surprise that his subsequent frustrated slap at the crossbar actually HIT the bar. He nonetheless deserves some credit for being the sole consistent attacking threat in an otherwise wretched match with which to end round two. Not even CAF’s web-maestros could fashion an “epic struggle” out of this bilge.

The no-goal-no-show has at least kept the potential fate of the group, if nothing else, interesting. You feel justice would be served, though, If Cameroon and Ghana won their third games, thereby eliminating Benin AND Guinea-Bissau.