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“Check that’s not Jackie Chan, will you?” after one particularly high challenge in the African Cup of Nations (ACN) semi-finals. Ah yes. Gary O’Reilly was back on Eurosport. And welcome back too. However, the most telling comment of any international football tournament is “no goals against.” And that’s a quote from Cote D’Ivoire.
The pre-tournament favourites waited until their 1-0 semi-final win over Mali to impress – but without a goal against, they’ve been unbeatable. And Mali were not about to prove otherwise, as ‘limited’ in this match as in most of their previous four. “Barcelona’s Seydou Keita” gave way to “Arsenal’s Gervinho”, and deservedly so.
Les Aigles rode their luck much like Zambia in their shock 1-0 win over Ghana. But where Zambia had Emmanuel Mayuka, Mali had Cheick Diabate; which needs no further comment. Ghana also showed something of their true form in their semi. But Cote D’Ivoire won and Ghana lost because of the relative opposition. The Elephants ran lanes through Mali early on and could have been aiming for the posts, so often were they hit. Zambia defended… well… they defended. There was initial sympathy for Mali and their vociferous support. Ref Daniel Bennett was born in Dewsbury. But this was hushed up after he failed to book Ivorian Chiekh Tiote on 41 seconds for a trademark clatter yet cautioned Mali’s Ousmane Berthe moments later…and then cautioned Seydou Keita for pointing this out.
However, Didier Drogba had already pinged a header against one post and Yaya Toure soon pummelled the other one with a medium-range right-foot missile. And just when you thought Cote D’Ivoire had to score eventually, they did. The goal was as odd as it sounds, “Arsenal’s Gervinho” nutmegging Berthe and running sixty yards unchallenged until side-footing the ball home from the corner of the six-yard box, right on half-time. Berthe was left mouthing the French equivalent of “where the **** were you?” to centre-back partner Cedric Kante, who almost seemed to wave Gervinho through rather than try to stop him. And such was Mali’s attacking paucity that the Elephants could rely on Kolo Toure to keep them safe in the second half.
Drogba alternated between awesome power and man-of-paper style theatrics. Twelve times in the closing quarter-hour, Ivorians fell to the floor, Drogba knocked flat by the ball itself when it was travelling at no greater speed than the setpieces he so often powers home. Mali’s late tactic was a common one in this tournament, if all else fails, try a Traore. That failed too. Tiote eventually received the booking he should have had in the first minute. But you would have fancied ten Ivorians to see the game out. The ten Ghanaians left to try and salvage something from the Zambia game had a far harder task. And a combination of brave last-ditch tackling and eighty minutes almost continuous practice at defending saw the Zambians through.
Zambia picked supersub against Sudan, James Chamanga. So, it wasn’t only Eurosport’s Tim Caple who thought Chamanga’s brief cameo in the quarter-final made him the player of the match. My mistake. To accommodate Chamanga, though, Zambia dropped Emmanuel Mayuka, which was their mistake, as events were to demonstrate. The Equatorial Guinea heavens opened for the second time in the tournament, just as the pitch in Bata had visibly recovered from the famous deluge of two weeks previously (if you lived there you might be tempted to move to Manchester for the good weather). And while Zambia played on that rain-soaked evening, Ghana appeared to benefit from the conditions in the semi-final, the ball skidding off the surface to good effect for their short-passing game.
But whatever the conditions, Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan and vital spot-kicks just don’t get on. If Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill really does want Gyan back from his loan spell in the UAE, it won’t be for FA Cup shoot-outs. To be fair to Gyan, Zambian keeper Kennedy Mweene pulled off a terrific save from a moderately-well-struck and placed penalty. And Ghana should have scored again and again with all the possession they had. Jordan Ayew was another beneficiary of an impressive quarter-final cameo. But he was worth his starting place here, although his exasperated expression looked permanent from half-time onwards, as chance after chance was laid waste and shots pinged towards Sierra Leone.
Zambian captain Christopher Katonga would have become the unlikeliest of leading scorers in the tournament if he hadn’t scuffed a first-half chance created by the excellent but oft-uncredited Rainford Kalaba. Meanwhile, coach Herve Renard was morphing into angry US comic Denis Leary, his lucky shirt as dripping with rage-induced sweat as rain (he could easily have barked his instructions from the dug-outs, distant though they were). Then Mayuka gained possession twenty yards out with twelve minutes left. The in-form O’Reilly was waxing lyrical about Ghana’s John Boye as the defender prepared to shepherd the Zambian striker away from target: “Tell you what, of all the Ghana players, John Boye…” he noted. He never told us what. Before O’Reilly could complete his thought, Mayuka found the merest hint of space and curled a shot on the half-turn round Ghana keeper Adam Kwarasey’s left-hand and in off the post through the ball-width gap the previously unemployed custodian had left.OIt didn’t look like the tournament’s best goal. But check the replays and remember the context of the match. Sensational.
Ghana midfielder Derek Boateng was so involved in proceedings that O’Reilly had wondered if there were two of them. Unfortunately for the Black Stars, both of them got booked. And even the late introduction of team morale officer Sulley Muntari wasn’t enough. “Ghana were third in 2008, second last time, could they continue that progress here?” asked commentator, and O’Reilly straight man, John Loder. No, they couldn’t. And a disinterested Ghana against an uninteresting Mali does not make the third-placed play-off an appealing prospect.
So two teams with orange first-choice kits will contest the final of the Orange African Cup of Nations – some soulless marketing bod’s wet dream, I’m sure. It could also be a dream of a match, although not even that could rescue the tournament from being labelled a disappointment. If the new-improved Cote D’Ivoire turn up and prove at all susceptible to Zambia’s counter-attacking style, the game could be, as they say far too often these days, “a good watch.” And here’s one to ponder. The Italian coach who qualified Zambia for the finals, didn’t survive to take them to the finals…and now Zambia are in the final. That might be an omen for England in Euro 2012. Then again… it might not.
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