AFCON 2017: The Group Stages, Round Three

by | Jan 26, 2017

Gabon 0 Cameroon 0; Burkina Faso 2 Guinea-Bissau 0

Inches. Three times Gabon were inches from being one of the most unconvincing quarter-finalists in AFCON history.

Their misfortunes would normally elicit huge sympathy from disinterested observers. But they produced too many uninterested observers as they plodded their way shapelessly through matches, especially against a stodgy Cameroon. Hopeless against ambitionless, with added nerves. Nil-nil was never more appropriate.

Inches, though. On four minutes, the genuinely-talented Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang mishit Denis Bouanga’s mishit-shot-turned-great-cross inches wide, 90 inches from goal. On 94 minutes, the genuinely-luckless Bouanga struck the inside of the post with a left-foot 20-yard drive. And Didier N’Dong’s right-foot shot on the rebound was inches from clearing Fabrice Ondoa’s hands as the Cameroon keeper was sat on his arse in the six-yard (216 inches) box. Inches-thinner gloves and an inches-thinner bum and Gabon were through.

Otherwise, they did next-to-nothing, although Bouanga’s overhit free-kicks from what is briefly “Rooney territory,” nearly exposed Ondoa’s positional shortcomings. “I cannot see what Gabon’s game plan is,” despaired Eurosport’s Stewart Robson. And even if they had one, their every move was nerve-wracked. The Indomitable Lions showed occasional composure and had a game plan…called “nil-nil will do.” They did occasionally threaten Gabon’s panicky custodian Didier Ovono. But that was largely for show.

“Guinea-Bissau will go out with honour, Gabon won’t,” said Eurosport’s Dave Farrar, correctly. In relatively low-key defeat to the Burkinabes, they gave everything they had, even if that was exposed as not much when they got into numerous decent positions and wasted them with execrable execution and decision-making.

Their qualification hopes all-but-ended in farce on 11 minutes. Djurtas keeper Jonas Mendes had just been praised for his positional sense when he senselessly raced out to gather a cross. Centre-back Rudmilson Silva headed it back to where he’d last seen Mendes, i.e. where Mendes should have been, and Juary Soares just failed to keep it out of the unguarded goal. Prejuce Nkoulma “made sure.” But his reticent celebration spoke volumes. As did the referee giving the goal as Nkoulma hit the ball. Unlike 1966, this ball…I’ll stop there.

At this stage, Burkina Faso and Cameroon were drawing lots to win the group. But while Gabon/Cameroon already had 0-0 written all over it in indelible ink, the attacking intent here suggested more goals, Guinea-Bissau pressing…yes…”pluckily” as Burkina Faso intermittently counter-attacked. The Burkinabes’ Bertram Traore nearly scored before the own goal, breaking down the right and shooting left-footed inches wide. On 57 minutes, he showed he had learnt directly and precisely from that miss and ensured group victory.

Group B: Senegal Reserves 2 Algeria 2; Tunisia 4 Zimbabwe 2

Magnificent entertainment, despite first and second places being effectively decided after 22 minutes.

Senegal rested about as many players as AFCON finals’ squad sizes allow. Whether much-lauded coach Aliou Cisse’s changes will help remains to be seen. It didn’t harm Tunisia’s progress, although had Zimbabwe not disastrously changed tactics in Libreville, controversy may have reigned.

Algeria cut eleven frustrated figures, despite the semi-gift of an early goal. One Senegal debutant was the Invisible Man’s twin brother at left-back as Sofiane Hanni had the freedom of Franceville to give Islam Slimani a tap-in. But news of goals travels faster than ever. And news of Tunisian goals made Algeria visibly tetchy. Yet they fashioned numerous first-half chances, with Mahrez at last as influential as he should be. The Lions of Teranga XI finished the half strongly, however, equalising with Papakouly Diop’s well-placed shot from the edge of the “D” past unsighted keeper Asselah Malek.

Algeria led again when Slimani horribly miscued a chance Mahrez presented on a proverbial plate but the ball, just, crossed the line anyway. Stewart Robson had just called Slimani the tournament’s “biggest disappointment” but had barely finished a Trump-esque “I was just saying how Slimani was having a good tournament” when Moussa Sow fired Senegal B level from the edge of the other “D.”

A pyrotechnic display ensued from Algerian fans, on-field events going too fast to know which goal they were a reaction to and whether in celebration or protest. It was as bright as Algeria got, although Slimani side-footed a hat-trick chance wide before coming off injured…the Fennecs’ early exit not necessarily good news for Leicester City.

Veteran AFCON observers have marvelled at Tunisia’s tradition-bustingly expansive displays in Gabon. They produced the first dominant 45 minutes to show on the scoreboard, as Zimbabwe replaced speedy counter-attack with over-aggressive defence. More “marvellous” was Zimbabwe centre-back Costa Nhamoinesu’s 92nd-minute thump into Yassine Knessi’s back, after which the TV cameras lingered on him, prompting commentators worldwide to ponder how he committed one red and two yellow-card offences yet was on the pitch to commit another bookable one

He actually saw yellow for a, relatively, innocuous first-half stoppage-time push, although it was in the penalty area, a “Kyle Walker” in topical parlance. The penalty halted the first of two putative Zimbabwe comebacks from three goals down. And Tunisia were only denied another goal by a “shirt’s width” offside decision (Leroy Rosenior).

On an Ernie Wise wig of a pitch (you could see the joins), Tunisia ran sumptuous lanes through Zimbabwe. But the Warriors kept their pride with two fine goals, the second another “team goal of the tournament” contender. Tendai Nkoro’s toe-poke finish ignited hopes of a thrilling comeback and qualification at Tunisia’s expense (“this is the real Zimbabwe now,” Dave Farrar).

But these were brief and delusional. Tunisia looked the likelier scorers thereafter in what started like “a training game in a training ground atmosphere” (Farrar) but ended as a fantastic match, worthy-and-more of an excellent group.

Group C: Cote D’Ivoire 0 Morocco 1; DR Congo 3 Togo 1

My WORD, Cote D’Ivoire were crap. “Maybe they’re playing to the peak of their abilities,” it dawned on Tim Caple, on 86 minutes, as the Elephants displayed elephantine mobility and tactics to the end. “Big boot to Bony,” was Plan A and B. And when skipper Serey Die pinged one miles wide from miles out, he summed them up.

Morocco’s, ahem, “cautious” attitude made their winner an entirely unexpected artistic concept. Sub Rachid Alioui found a ball-width’s gap between crossbar and keeper Sylvian Gbohouo’s gloves with a sumptuous 25-yard curler, taken early with minimal backlift. A substitute being substituted is normally embarrassing. Alioui, on for the injured Aziz Bouhaddouz just before half-time, minded not a jot.

Morocco should have led before half-time, Faycal Fajr’s 20-yard free-kick against the underside of the crossbar a necessary air-freshener as the game stank the place out. Wilfrid Zaha brought a semi-decent save from Munir Mohamedi. “Made it easy,” snorted Stewart Robson, harshly. But, bar occasional flashes of Salomon Kalou at his best, Cote D’Ivoire made a turgid, deserved exit.

Robson felt confident that the second-half “will be better.” Bar the goal, it wasn’t, which perhaps explained Robson’s irritation at the suggestion that “Subbuteo” needed explaining to younger viewers. And when Morocco’s “prize” for being group runner-up was announced as “going to Port-Gentil,” it, momentarily, felt a little deserved.

Sooooo unlike the Ivorians, DR Congo over-achieved at times quite delightfully, though Dave Farrar’s suggestion that the Leopards “always looked likely to over-perform” needed more thought. And they could/should have beaten a plucky-but-exhausted Togo by more, Jonathan Bolingi squandering half-a-million good second-half positions. Yet there were some “what ifs” about Port-Gentil’s best game yet, on a heavily-watered pitch. Had Emmanuel Adebayor fixed his hair in a Zlatan/Andy Carroll knot rather than a ponytail, he might have netted Razak Boukari’s fourth-minute cross and changed the complexion of the evening.

Togo’s goalkeeping misfortunes were also game-changing. First-choice Kossi Agassa had to return home to tend to his threatened family and vandalised house, domestic fans’ reaction to his shaky display against Morocco (an attitude you’d be a w**ker to understand let alone possess and enact). And “lively” second-choice Baba Tchagouni (NOT a “Subbuteo keeper”) got himself injured, for which the pitch, for once, was not culpable.

Yet when Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba made it 2-1 with a terrific finish, Togolese qualification was on. Alas, Adebayor fired his best chance in Gabon more-or-less at Leopards’ keeper Ley Matampi. And DR Congo broke at will/leisure thereafter, though their third goal was a stunning “Lampard-esque” free-kick from sub Paul Jose M’Poku (i.e. it bounced down off the bar two yards behind the line).

A curate’s egg-shaped group. But the right two teams through.

Group D: Ghana 0 Egypt 1; Mali 1 Uganda 1

What a group. Seven games on a beach and the eighth might as well have been in the sea, so much pre-match rain fell in Oyem.

To the victors…another game in Port-Gentil. Those who feared a ghastly game between Egyptian and Ghanaian teams not over-keen to win the group…got it. But it wasn’t for the want of both teams trying. After Mohamed Salah’s 11th-minute piledriven free-kick (remarkably the “worst” goal of the night), Egypt defended magnificently, although the most vital intervention was the bobble which sent a second-half Christian Atsu effort yards wide.

Even Essam El-Hadary looked a proper goalie, even if Stewart Robson was all “right height,” and “should be saving that” as the Pharoahs glovesman denied Emmanuel Badu and Jordan Ayew. He certainly won the custodian battle. Ghana’s Brimah Razack plonked a clearance at Marwan Mohsen and had Mohsen mishit his shot as badly, it would have been 2-0. Instead, he got the height and distance Razack was looking for. So it wasn’t.

The Black Stars had a late first-half penalty shout, about which they barely shouted at all, Daniel Amartey’s shirt briefly resembling a dog’s lampshade collar, which made him head Ghana’s best first-half chance wide. But there was no case for them earning a point. If Asamoah Gyan’s groin strain is remotely serious, they might struggle going forward. And if that sounds like my excuse for my title tip to go tits-up…that’s because it is. Would like to see Atsu and the Ayews on a good pitch, though. Kind of why I tipped them.

“Hard-going,” said Eurosport’s Jon Driscoll of the Mali/Uganda first half, almost entirely down to a pond-like pitch…at a cricket ground, the umpires would be looking again in May. In Equatorial Guinea in 2012, two remarkable games emerged from similar conditions. Mali, dispirited after unrewarded efforts against Ghana, and Uganda, dispirited after unrewarded efforts against Egypt, weren’t about to fashion a repeat.

Uganda, though, did themselves justice and East Africa proud. And bad though the match was, it will feature heavily any goal of the tournament competition. Uganda went one-up with an almighty 25-yard toe-poke from Farouk Miya. And Yves Bissouma’s inch-perfectly placed 35-yard free-kick leveller was better still. Leroy Rosenior questioned Cranes keeper Robert Odongkara’s positioning but was shut down by replays showing how unstoppable the shot was.

Driscoll noted “a look of resignation” on Mali coach Alain Giresse’s face…more like a look of getting sacked in the proverbial morning if you ask me. Uganda’s Milutin Sredojevic earned better job prospects. And we can all feel better now that this god-help-us group is over.

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