AFCON 2017: The Quarter-Finals

by | Jan 31, 2017

Blimey. The best of the four AFCON 2017 finals’ groups, Group B, will be unrepresented in the semi-finals. The worst, Group D, could yet provide the finalists. Mark Murphy tries to explain…

Burkina Faso 2 Tunisia 0

Aristide Bance. Christian Benteke in a grated-cheese wig. But a Burkinabe cult hero before becoming a real one to consign Tunisia to a fifth (FIFTH!) consecutive defeat in an AFCON quarter-final. The “England of Africa,” you might say, but don’t.

Bance’s impact may be the abiding memory of AFCON 2017. The sparse Libreville crowd were no collective shrinking violet. But the sight of Bance putting his number 15 shirt on increased the volume so dramatically that Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce could accurately call it, despite being in front of a TV screen five thousand miles away, watching time-filling crowd shots.

Within five minutes, Bance drilled home the deadlock-breaker after Bertrand Traore touched a free-kick into his path, hit the post with his next shot and caused so much panic among Tunisian on-field ranks that they went to 0-0-10 at their next corner and were, shock, caught on the break as Prejuce Nkoulma dodged panic-stricken keeper Aymen Mathlouthi near the centre-circle and kept his composure and a straight face to roll home his side’s second goal.

This drama, which would go viral-and-two-thirds as a five-minute you tube clip, came from almost thin air. The first-half wasn’t remotely as bad as Eurosport’s Adam Virgo insisted…it hadn’t been bad at all. The second half, though, was beginning to stink and the odds on extra-time were shrinking fast until…HE appeared.

Tunisia were again untraditionally positive. But they didn’t click at the vital moments. Wahbi Khazri appeared unfathomably heavier than in previous games. And commentary-box whingeing at his substitution was more EPL-centricity than reasoned analysis (although Khazri whinged too, refusing to shake coach Henryk Kasperczak’s hand in a move which might have ended his tournament even if Bance didn’t).

In fact, Eurosport had a bit of a nightmare. Aside from his dim view of first-half proceedings, Virgo misplaced considerable fury at some outlandish Burkinabe shirt-pulling (“that’s a penalty, Wayne…how that is not a penalty, I’ll never know”) before being gently informed that the ball was not in play when it happened.

And Wayne Boyce was so phased by late events that his voice broke back again when Nkoulma scored, he introduced us to AFCON newcomers, Bacuni Faso, and suggested that someone somewhere “blore the bunt” of something. In fairness, the sight of a Garth Crooks-lookalike (Burkinabe keeper Herve Koffi) doing celebratory somersaults would disconcert anyone. After all that, though, he was calm enough to remind viewers that Bance’s free-kick was never a free-kick at all. And that the sour immediate post-match reaction of some Tunisians came from a genuine grievance.

Nonetheless, the Burkinabes were fractionally the better side even before Bance arrived. Bertram Traore may be no Jonathan Pitroipa but he is resembling him more each game. Bakary Kone is the best of the many towering defenders in Gabon. And coach Paulo Duarte has intriguing striking options, the talismanic, crowd-rousing Bance or the head-down, arse-up directness of Nkoulma. Or both.

Cameroon 0 Senegal 0 (Cameroon win 5-4 on penalties)

Ten penalties. Nine of them brilliant, especially those taken by defenders. Then Sadio Mane took his spot-kick like he really was thinking “Liverpool need me,” and Cameroon semi-reserves were one step nearer being THE story of the tournament.

Senegal misfired when it mattered most. The warning signs had, apparently, “been there” because they missed chances against Zimbabwe. They had, of course, been ultra-clinical against Tunisia. But throughout it all was Mame Biram Diouf, introduced by Tim Caple as “due a goal” and even more due one now. If your centre-forward can’t score for all the toffee in a town made of Werther’s Originals, you are in trouble.

Cameroon graduated from the niggly-foul school of defending and impressed Russell Osman, who again betrayed his centre-half roots to those too young to remember him with his “where’s the foul there?” mantra. That Collins Fai took 59 minutes to get booked was the referee’s fault. But he was disciplined enough thereafter to avoid dismissal, despite, Caple claimed, three reds and ten yellows in 19 club games, although it was his first caution in his six internationals. “Misunderstood, I think the term is,” Caple added, testing the temperature of in the sarcastic ocean.

Their display recalled Dave Farrar’s withering assessment (“no great shakes”). But for all his eccentricities and over-willingness to bawl others out for his mistakes, goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa made good saves at vital times, none more so, of course, than his save from Mane’s shoot-out spot-kick, which he did well not to dive past.

Striker Robert Ndip Tambe was constantly on-camera looking 94 shades of frustrated and subjected to regular character-assassination from Caple. “Just not good enough,” Caple decided, before offering the most damning faint praise, “he did everything within his own set of abilities,” an assessment Tambe might gladly put on the mantelpiece alongside any AFCON winners medal.

For Senegal, Mane flitted in and out of proceedings too often. Diouf blazed his one real chance over the bar and nearly castrated Ondoa in the process. But most frustrating was Balde Diao Keita. “Wonder who he models himself on,” Osman mused (to silence from an uncomprehending Caple) as Keita strutted and fretted his two hours upon the stage like Cristiano Ronaldo on self-confidence pills.

Again, though, his influence was intermittent, although he was clearly fouled in the penalty-box on 52 minutes. Cameroon should also have had a penalty, five minutes later, Christian Bassogog’s inner-right thigh meeting Kalidou Koulibaly’s studs as he was about to shoot from the corner of the six-yard box.

Benjamin Moukandjp came closest for the Interminable Lions from a similar position nine minutes later, his shot sticking to Senegal keeper Abdoulaye Diallo’s outstretched right hand. And occasional chances pierced the on-field gloom during normal and extra-time. Diallo kicked away Jacques Zoua’s left-foot drive. While Ondoa blocked Chiekhou Kouyate’s long-range strike and Moussa Sow dragged the rebound wide as Senegal finished the 90 minutes strongly.

But the real drama belonged to a shoot-out which kept alive the possibility of the final restaging Cameroon’s opening day encounter with Burkina Faso, a prospect no-one foresaw.

Ghana 2 Democratic Republic of Congo 1

A second half of “entirely unforeseen quality,” turned this quarter-final into a “game for the ages,” claimed Farrar, getting the proverbial quill out for his assessment of a very two-part match.

The first half was hideous…correction, Ghana were hideous, dividing observers between those who fancy them as AFCON winners for the first time since 1982 (me) and those who expect their luck to run out real quick (everyone else). DR Congo emerged with their decent reputation intact. And had Ghana matched the Leopards in that half, it would have been an OK half. They didn’t, so it wasn’t.

After six minutes, to use a phrase which might be familiar to Hull Daily Mail readers, Dieumerci Mbokani should have scored. Ghana consolidated all possible defensive errors into one easy cock-up, Mbokani pounced, rounded keeper Razak Brimah and…hit the outside of the post of the open goal from the corner of the six-yard box. “Dieumerci,” thought the whole of Ghana.

Eurosport were soon convinced we were “in for a long afternoon.” This was harsh on DR Congo (and Mbokani, who was otherwise involved in all their better work) but not on the Black Stars, who Farrar euphemistically called “a bit more…functional” than previous Ghanaian teams. “Stay tuned at half-time because we have the highlights to show you,” Farrar added, making his own fun. Mercifully for the spectacle, he was right that “Ghana couldn’t play that badly again.”

Even the crowd was better after half-time, from Ryman League levels at kick-off (drowned out by overhead helicopter noise) to a League Two gathering. Andre Ayew was credited with this resurgence, although both he and Amartey had given out at colleagues at Ghana’s half-time on-field huddle and coach Avram Grant surely had a few dressing-room words.

So, we had a “real” match by the time Jordan Ayew fired Ghana ahead on 63 minutes, made even more real when Paul Jose M’Poku latched onto a quickly-taken free-kick to ping in a worldie, as I believe the kidz say, from a genuine 35 yards, inspiring Leopards’ keeper Ley Matampe to resurrect his ludicrous and ludicrously-popular “riding along on his arse” goal celebration from AFCONs past.

Farrar had the goals as “maybe one and two in the tournament,” which, given that Ghana’s goal wasn’t THAT special, suggested he’d OD’d on some exotic half-time refreshment.  And moments later, the concoction had Farrar insisting that Amartey would have seen red “in the Premier League” for a late tackle.

Moments later still, Andre Ayew converted his spot-kick after Lomalisa Mutambala inadvertently but clumsily tripped Christian Atsu (“as excited as I’ve seen him since Chelsea sacked Mourinho,” Stewart Robson suggested mischievously as Grant celebrated). And Ghana survived DRC Congo’s late long-ball onslaught with new defender Daniel Amarteywhoshouldntbeonthepitch.

Most of the Leopards’ late half-chances fell to substitute Cedric Bakambu, who, sadly for their hopes of tournament progress, showed why he was sub, only forcing one save from Razak, albeit a good one. Atsu should have made it 3-1 in stoppage-time. But the Black Stars’ own choreographed riding celebration was intensified by the knowledge that they were lucky to survive.

Egypt 1 Morocco 0

Speaking of lucky to survive… “I’ve seen it all before,” the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson wearily noted of Egypt’s progress to past AFCON triumphs, citing their reliance on one-nil wins and one great performance to capture admittedly deserved titles.

We await the great performance, although the fact that their semi-final will be at “NOT Port-Gentil” will increase its likelihood. How Morocco didn’t score against the Pharoahs’ supposedly impenetrable rearguard, with a dodgy goalkeeper who possibly KNEW the Pharoahs, remains hard to understand.

Chances were as “at a premium” as previous Port-Gentil encounters in as grim a first-half as Ghana’s quarter-final. But Morocco’s Romain Saiss missed a gilt-edged opportunity (raised a degree of difficulty above “sitter” by…yep…a bad bounce). And Egypt weren’t helped by a knee injury to the already heavily-strapped Marwan Mohsen, a problem surely exacerbated by countless commiserating colleagues flinging their arms over his shoulders as he limped away, weeping.

Again, the second half was a deal better, with both sides instantly quicker and more direct, realising (way too late?) that one way to counter a lumpy pitch was to keep the ball off it as often as possible.

Mbark Boussoufa nearly replicated his stunning free-kick goal against DR Congo with an even more stunning 25-yarder from open play which “experienced” Egyptian custodian Essem El-Hadary could only wave onto the bar. But by then, Aziz Bouhaddouz was established as misser-of-sitter-in-chief. And when his 68th-minute header was deflected wide of a goal left gaping by a hopelessly wrong-footed El-Hadary, the sense that it wasn’t their day was overwhelming…especially when the referee gave a goal-kick.

Egypt’s threats were more isolated. But on 77 minutes they introduced a new concept to AFCON 2017, an imaginative setpiece, Tarek Hamed chipping a 25-yard free-kick over the defensive wall for Mohamed Salah to run onto from said wall and hook the ball goalwards. Moroccan keeper Munir Mohamedi was acrobatically equal to the effort.

But he could do nothing ten minutes later when sub Mahmoud Abdel-Moniem netted after an exclusively Egyptian game of pinball in the six-yard box. This capped a lively cameo for Abdel-Moniem, the artist known as Kahraba, who was subjected to a massive clipboard attack by the coaching staff before coming on and was booked within eleven minutes.

Morocco’s 92nd-minute sub Rachid Alioui, who scored the exquisite winner against Cote D’Ivoire, nearly had a livelier cameo, firing a decent chance wide within a minute of coming on. And Faycal Fajrs last-seconds free-kick had Moroccan fans in parts of the stadium screaming as it ruffled the netting. Outside the post, though. And, as Roder noted, it was another example of the best team losing an AFCON knock-out game, for arguably the second time within hours.

The Semi-Finals

My predictions of Senegalese and Tunisian victories were proved wrong before the article in which they were made was published. So I am saying nothing about the semi-finals. Except to recall that my pre-tournament tip was Ghana.

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