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Group C ended up as Group A’s inverted evil twin – intermittently good at first, collectively allergic to goal attempts at the end. Having praised Eurosport for negotiating Group A’s minefield of ever-changing team positions, I felt somewhat let down by the mess into which they mired themselves as Zambia and Nigeria threatened to copy each other into oblivion. Two nil-nils, an increasingly likely outcome of their games with Burkina Faso and Ethiopia respectively, would have left the Chipolopolo and Super Eagles level on points, head-to-head, goal difference and goals scored…and leave them separated on what ITV’s Sam Matterface called “fair playgrounds.” Of course, second place wasn’t about to be decided by the quality of kids’ recreational facilities. However, the fair-play grounds which were to decide it seemed scarcely less random when it emerged that Efie Ambrose’s dismissal against Ethiopia could eliminate Nigeria.
This took time to emerge on Eurosport, however, as they boldly declared at half-time that third-placed Zambia “have it all to do.” ITV, meanwhile, had Zambia second, Matterface having already noted that the bookings count was 8-6 to Nigeria and would see them through. ITV began badly, though, Matterface declaring it “winner takes it all in Rustenberg.” This wasn’t necessarily true of Ethiopia who, if Zambia also won, would have still been third behind the Burkinabes. But two victories needed two goals. So Matterface’s error was not about to haunt him, not before half-time anyway. Nigeria/Ethiopia was Group C’s first game on a decent pitch, with Burkina Faso/Zambia staged on the main group venue, Nelspruit beach. This didn’t appear to make much difference as the Rustenbergers indulged in an overhit-pass contest – but that proved marginally the better first half.
The injury to tournament top-scorer Alain Traore was Nelspruit/Copacabana’s first-half highlight, with the feeling persisting that Traore would finish as tournament top-scorer even though his is now over. The green tape Traore had on the thigh injury he badly aggravated on the beach set Eurosport’s Danny Mills off on a disturbing hippy riff about the powers of positivity in “Kinesiotape’s” different colours. No, really. Commentator Jon Driscoll’s cynicism spoke for the nation (“it’s not worked for Traore, has it?”) and when Driscoll asked what determined the colours, Mills admitted that… er… “these days they try and make it the same colour as the kit.” If this exchange isn’t already a YouTube hit, it should be. We had been warned that Mills was on an off-day when he bemoaned the ‘fact’ that “goal difference is a thing of the past” and asked: “Why do we go down to bookings? Surely goal difference and goals scored is far easier.” It was almost enough to make you miss Mark Bright. Almost.
ITV’s Efan Ekoku was “cautiously optimistic before the start” but was “getting desperate now” by half-time, although, unlike Fabrice Muamba during DR Congo matches, ITV didn’t shove a camera in his face throughout, to record his growing unease. ITV must know not to upset him; their AFCON coverage cannot do without him. First-half chances had been rarer than visible Nelspruit grass although that didn’t stop Eurosport editing Collins Mbesuma’s waste of Zambia’s only one from their highlights. Traore’s injury was the highlight of the 90 first-half minutes (plus TWO minutes added time for his five-minute injury delay). So it was no wonder Ekoku was getting desperate and that bookings were the main focus during the equally-insipid third quarters. “How about someone knocks it in the back of the net,” Andy Townsend noted, drily.
“If its 0-0 after 80 minutes, there will be fireworks,” Matterface noted, plaintively. But he was about right, as, on 79 minutes, Chelsea’s (oh…and Nigeria’s) Victor Moses drew a clear foul in the box from Ethiopia’s Alula Girma and tucked away the penalty, both with a class previously missing from proceedings. “Super Eagles lead, they’d better hold on to this one,” warned Matterface. And moments later, Salahdin Said’s header was brilliantly saved by Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama. That wouldn’t have taken Nigeria back down to third, as a nerve-shredded Ekoku later suggested, because Nigeria had now scored more goals than Zambia ever looked likely to.
Indeed, when Ethiopia conceded a second penalty, Eurosport’s commentators for the Zambia game, Driscoll and Mills were focused on Rustenberg. The Antelopes had now run out of keepers, with one injured, one rubbish, and Sasay Bancha dismissed for taking his turn to upend Moses in the box. Amid the months it took Ethiopia to pick a replacement keeper, Mills treated us to another wistful tale, of his day as Manchester City’s second-choice keeper. Having allowed Mills to finish, Moses scored his second penalty, with “keeper” Addis Hintsa guessing the right way and running across his line to get to the shot, only to forget to dive at the key moment. So with Ethiopia’s campaign disintegrating, attention really did focus on Nelspruit, as a Zambia goal would eliminate the Burkinabes, the group leaders at kick-off. And Mbesuma had by now wasted the best chance in each half, heading wide of a gaping goal.
Mukuka Mulenga might have nicked one while Eurosport were on split-screen, or “picture-and-picture”, which is apparently the correct technical term. But his ‘shot’ served better as a clearance… and a summary of Zambia’s night. After the final whistle, some undeserved celebration by useless Burkinabe striker Aristide Bance (whose haircut made him resemble a blond chicken when he ran) and the inevitable Zambian tears, cameras focused on another crying man. But he wore a red shirt, so was possibly a neutral, contemplating 97 minutes of his life that he would never get back.
For half-an-hour at least, the Nelspruit pitch didn’t look so bad as Togo and Tunisia pinged the ball around with alacrity. And the dark clouds over Group D’s second-place play-off were not formed by the surface. Offside though it was – as ITV’s Clyde Tyldesley and Jim Beglin never tired of reminding us – Togo’s opener was deserved as their wide-men fed off Emmanuel Adebayor and created some presentable chances against a Tunisian defence higher than Lance Armstrong on a French cycling trip. Tyldesley must once have had a barney with the Togolese talisman, as he insisted that Adebayor was having a stinker. “His one involvement was to set up the goal,” Tyldesley noted after half-time, incorrectly (if he’d wanted to see a talented but disinterested main striker in real inaction, he should have been watching Cote D’Ivoire (below).
As if suddenly remembering they had to win, Tunisia woke up after Serge Gakpe’s 13th-minute goal, and had the best of proceedings once Khaled Mouelhi equalised from the spot after a soap-soft penalty award. “Maybe it balances things out,” noted Beglin, taking aNOTHER opportunity to remind us that Togo’s goal was offside. And replays of Dare Nibombe’s tap on Walid Hichri’s shoulder brought a comment at half-time that there would be a lot of penalties in the game if referee and Robin Williams-doppelganger Daniel Bennett was giving one like that. Wrong…wrong…wrong. Bennett had already left a hint of how wrong when he refused Tunisian penalty appeals just before the break after Togolese centre-back Abdoul-Gafar Mamah ‘eased’ the ball away from a goalbound Carthage Eagle in the box. Tyldesley described the handball as “accidental,” “subliminal” and “instinctive.” But it was also a “penalty.”
For his next trick Bennett refused to point spot-wards when Oussama Darragi got an audible, let alone visible, belt on the calf from Vincent Bossou. Wahbi Khazri was booked for shouting something in protest which particularly upset Bennett (“Mork and Mindy was ****”, perhaps). But Bennett quickly ‘balanced things out,’ refusing Togo a penalty when Adebayor was grappled into the grit by Hichri – Tyldesley, surprise, thought it “looked like a dive.” And he refused them another when Adebayor had his shirt pulled by a defender and was flattened by keeper Moez Ben Cherifa – even Tyldesley couldn’t deny that one. Bennett’s piece-de-resistance was his booking of the seven-foot-plenty Nibombe for bringing down Youssef Mskani on the edge of the box, when the guilty party was the considerably-shorter Serge Akakpo (“by about three feet” – Tyldesley). This would have been especially unfortunate had Nibombe been cautioned for conceding the first-half penalty.
The relief/surprise on Akakpo’s face as he watched Bennett stride past him to book Nibombe instead was palpable, and he kept well clear of the ensuing Togolese protests, looking sheepish enough to go “baa” and not invite comment. Whoever gets the caution will be suspended for Togo’s quarter-final. Almost inevitably, Tunisia got another penalty when Safer Khilfa won a softie from, equally inevitably, Nibombe’s challenge – he wasn’t that unlucky overall, then. But Mouelhi’s sense of justice took control as he struck his spot-kick against the post. When Bennett missed a blatant stoppage-time push on Adebayor, no-one was surprised anymore. And his antics detracted from a dramatic-enough match in its own right. Tunisia ought to have won, as Togo ill-advisedly tried to protect their point with defending as chaotic as it was deep.
Substitute Fakhreddine Ben Youssef had two stoppage-time chances saved by Kossi Agassa – the first brave, the second point-blank and brilliant. Yet Adebayor hit the crossbar with a terrific header and Floyd Ayite could/should have scored when clean through, as Togo’s proved effective on the break again. But the match will be remembered for Bennett. His Wikipedia entry was quickly amended to note that he “mysteriously won the Tunisian lottery on 30 January 2013.”, even though his worst decision actually went against them. ITV’s Quentin Fortune wasn’t about to defend ‘one of his own,’ exclaiming “’es ‘ad one” in cockney-South African. And Beglin expressed his surprise that someone who’d “refereed the Kaiser Chiefs in the South African Premier League”) was so bad. “If he’d been from Gambia or somewhere,” he continued, as I tried not to put my foot through the telly. Bennett was born in… England. By the way.
Algeria’s attempt to somehow restore pride by beating Cote D’Ivoire’s reserves was less fraught – there were two more penalties but neither was contentious. Ryad Boudebouz clonked the first against the post, generating terrific power if not accuracy from a two-pace run-up. And he’d just been substituted by Sofiane Feghouli when the second arrived on 63 minutes. This was a managerial masterstroke/stroke of luck from Desert Foxes boss Vahid Halilodzic as Feghouli despatched the penalty and supplied an inch-perfect cross for Hilal Soudani to nod home six minutes later. It was a shadow Ivorian team, Mills noted with 18 minutes left, but “the record books will show they beat the Ivory Coast.” If they’re wrong, they will, although Mills was not alone in expecting an Algerian win.
Commentator Dan O’Hagan wondered aloud when Drogba had last ventured outside the centre-circle. Then the striker headed home a beauty from penalty-spot distance. And perennial Drogba-understudy Wilfried Bony sought credit for the Elephants 80th-minute leveller, although his shot was heading straight for the TV camera fifteen yards wide of the goal before it brained Djamel Mesbah and flew past Rais Mbolhi, who was flying in another direction altogether. Whether any significant Algerian pride was restored remains debatable. But Ekoku was right to suggest that for them to be goalless and pointless would have been “a bit of a travesty.” After all, they’d been better than some other finalists, not all of whom have been knocked out yet.
In recent years, Cote D’Ivoire/Algeria has watered the mouth as a prospect. The youth of the current ‘Super’ Eagles and Cote D’Ivoire’s inability to locate much fluent football in recent finals mitigates against this. However, at least they will have some unadulterated grass to play on. Burkina Faso and Togo will have to bring out the sand wedges again. Togo did play some neat football on it yesterday. And manager Didier Six has compared it favourably to the “golf pitch” at their national stadium. But it’s still a beach.And what should Ray Winstone encourage gamblers to have a bang on? Cote D’Ivoire in one match. And penalties, and a whingeing losing team, in the other. It could be grim.
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