Sudan went into this tournament having failed to score an ACN goal since 1976. Bet you didn’t know that at kick-off against Angola last Thursday. Bet you were sick of hearing it by full-time.
Sudan broke this goalscoring duck (36 years, you know) moments after Eurosport’s Matt Jackson declared he didn’t know where their next goal is coming from. So Ahmed Bashir’s header meant that he and Dan O’Hagan could stop talking about Sudan’s ’36-year’ goalscoring drought. Unfortunately, they chose not to – almost as if Eurosport’s crib sheet only had one fact.
To be fair, Jackson was right about Sudan’s apparent prospects of equalising Manucho’s fiercely-struck opening goal. You sensed it might be a case of “roll on 2048” for their next one. Yet they hadn’t been bad in defeat to Cote D’Ivoire. And, by the way, they had only played three finals matches during this supposedly dreadful 36-year goal drought. Yes, THREE. Not that vital a statistic, then.
A less dull stat, although not by much admittedly, was that Angola’s 48th-minute penalty was the first of the tournament. Manucho scored with something a few notches below aplomb and the game seemed won, as Sudan hadn’t won a point in the CAN, we were now being informed, since you-know-when.
It wasn’t. And it didn’t deserve to be, as Sudan improved as much from first game to second as the tournament had. And when Bashir was presented with his second goal by an epidemic of “after you, Claude” at the heart of Angola’s defence, at least no-one said Sudan’s goals were like buses. Angola’s goalkeeper Carlos maintained his reputation for nut-job goalkeeping, kicking one shot away like a nine-year-old on a concrete school playground. And he did himself a mischief making one clearance.
At first, it wasn’t clear whether it was a hamstring strain or cramp (“he can’t have cramp, he’s only done 200 yards,” – Jackson). Eventually it was agreed that Carlos was simply “attention-seeking”, which wasn’t exactly news. There was more anatomy news, though, as Manucho “threw half an elbow” at a defender in one aerial challenge. What an interesting skeleton that man must have.
Cote D’Ivoire’s tournament record after their “workmanlike” (copyright: Euphemisms r Us) 2-0 win over Burkina Faso is now identical to England’s at the 2006 World Cup – as is Ghana’s (see below). The quality and entertainment value served up along the way has also been identical, alas.
ITV 4’s choice of live group game, therefore, was a wrong ‘un. As suggested in these pages, ITV hadn’t picked the game because of the Burkinabes’ Aristide Bance. However, his hairstyle proved to be a highlight, think Johnny Rotten since 1999. Bance, or his barber, must have seen the Sex Pistols on their “Filthy Lucre” tour.
Cote D’Ivoire’s Didier Zakora returned to the side after a suspension, a fact which sent shockwaves nowhere. And the low-key nature of the encounter was summed up by Zakora’s failure to get booked until the 51st minute. And Newcastle’s Cheik Tiote didn’t test the referee’s handwriting skills until the 77th minute, the lightweight. Centre-half Sol Bamba was so impressive that ITV’s Steve Bower made him a “Premier League star” during a game which he began (and ended) as a Leicester City player. A remarkable achievement, that. Or a sign of English football media obsession with the Premier League at the expense of all else domestic. You decide.
And Burkinabes Jonathan Pitroipa and Alain Traore looked far too good to be leaving the competition this early. The same could not be said of “defender” Bakary Kone or his aptly named colleague Mamadou Tall. Kone created Angola’s second goal in his first match, and scored Cote D’Ivoire’s second here, the silly man. Indeed, there was a case for making him Cote D’Ivoire’s man-of-the-match, so minimal was the impact of anyone in orange. An unimpressive qualification from the group and tournament favourites, then. They could, of course, get better as the competition progresses. They will need to.
Anything Equatorial Guinea can do, Gabon can do almost as well, and in better weather. Group C’s double-header had nearly as much going on as Wednesday’s Group A games. In most recent tournaments, the co-hosts ultra-dramatic dismissal of “fancied” Morocco might have been the “signature” match. And only the Equatoguineans rain-soaked drama could have outdone it.
It must be remembered, however, that Gabon were much the better side, and had only got themselves into such a muddle thanks to 25 minutes of early stage-fright, out of which they only snapped when Morocco scored. Gabon’s Daniel Cousin hinted at extra class in his momentary contribution against Niger. Here, he showed that he is one of the tournaments few “proper” centre-forwards. And he even appeared to have lost significant weight in the four days between games.
He and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were a spectacular combination from the moment Cousin was introduced at the start of the second half, which turned the game hugely Gabon’s way; that, and the referee’s insistence that most of the 50/50 free-kick decisions – and the occasional 40/60 – went their way too.
The most dramatic theatre is provided by a keen sense of timing. And this, the hosts absolutely perfected. Just when it looked as if the increasingly-defensive Moroccans were about to stand firm, they collapsed. The trackside crowd invasion after Aubameyang’s photogenic 77th-minute volley had barely been cleared when Cousin scuffed his side 2-1 up. Aubameyang did well to avoid injury, having been swamped by a mass of celebrating humanity after his goal. That he was able to walk straight, let alone create the second goal moments later was wondrous.
Cousin’s half-time introduction was a managerial masterstroke by Gernot Rohr. His late replacement of left-back Eric Mouloungi by Bruno Mbanangoye was destined to be less fondly remembered, when skipper Houssine Kharjah’s equaliser turned the ground from nightclub to library in the space of one coolly-dispatched 90th-minute penalty.
This would have been unfair on Rohr. The change was defensive. But Gabon hardly dragged everyone back behind the ball in the closing stages – they were two-and-a-bit inches from a 3-1 lead when Levy Madinda volleyed over in the 85th minute. And Morocco’s equaliser came down the Gabonese right, inspired by substitute Abel Taarabt’s lone but skilful contribution. Still, none of that matters now.
Gabon’s winner was pure film-script territory, and I don’t mean Escape to Victory. A clattering foul from the villain, Mehdi Benatia, set up a free-kick in a scoreable but difficult position and set up the final plot twist as Mbanangoye, the substitute that had cost Gabon the game not ten minutes earlier, won Gabon the game.
“Postage stamp,” cried ITV’s Sam Matterface (a reference to the gap Mbanangoye’s free-kick had found), which will have meant nothing to the e-mail, twitter generation. And the crowd went as wild as they were physically able after the emotionally shattering eighteen minutes they’d just endured.
All that was missing was the referee blowing his whistle when the game re-started. Had they been really quick, there was time for the Moroccans to fashion one last chance. But after the eighteen minutes they’d just endured, it wasn’t going to happen.
Tunisia’s 2-1 win over Niger earlier in the day was a “regulation” entertaining game of football. We were treated to one great goal, one late goal, one comedy goal and the requisite mix of good football and football which so bad it was good. Niger were hopeless in their opening game. And they were borderline-hopeless here too for the first quarter at least. Tunisia went ahead on six minutes when the hugely-impressive Youssef Msanki waltzed through Niger’s non-rearguard a la Roberto Baggio against Czechoslovakia in Italia ’90.
But Niger were level three minutes later with a goal as ridiculous as Msanki’s had been sublime. Moussa Maazou, who one way or another was to be this game’s star, “used his hand to interfere with Tunisia’s goalkeeper,” according to goal.com’s match report allowing William Ngounou to head home.
Maazou had merely flicked the ball out of keeper Aymen Mathlouthi’s hand, rather than anything more unorthodox for a football match. And he could have had at least a hat-trick of legitimate goals, as Tunisia found no way whatsoever to control his direct running and rocket-like pace.
Unfortunately Mazzou had all the attributes – including a “good touch for a big man”, whatever that means – except the somewhat fundamental ability to finish. So it was that he managed to destroy almost everything he created. Like Sudan, Niger markedly improved from first game to second. But despite a universal insistence that they were unlucky to concede a late winner, they were still second best to a misfiring but always threatening Tunisia, whose all-time top scorer Issam Jemaa capped a frankly terrible display with a neat run and finish.
Gabon and Tunisia will now meet for the right to avoid Ghana in the quarter-finals. Probably. As previously mentioned, Ghana have matched Cote D’Ivoire scrappy win-for-scrappy win thus far, in the group which has gone most according to plan. And you have to wonder how good Ghana are after their laboured win over a Botswana side who were subsequently steamrollered by Guinea.
Guinea were inspired by one of the 94 Traore’s playing at this tournament, their success based on getting Ibrahima T on the ball as much as possible, and keeping defender Bobo Balde away from it as much as possible. It was a shock to be reminded that Balde won FIVE SPL titles with Celtic, not least because we were reminded of this seconds before his off-compass backpass forced keeper Naby-Moussa Yattara to concede the penalty from which Botswana, some minutes later, scored their first-ever ACN goal.
Dipsy Selolwane netted the re-take after Yattara nearly saved his first kick at his feet, so far was he off his line. About half the Guinea side was either booked or nearly booked, in protest at what was a clear penalty and a clearly correct decision to order a re-take. Dipsy, indeed.
Fortunately, this was a momentary blip in Guinea’s pacy progress to a thumping 6-1 win, the match disintegrating as a contest in the first-half stoppage time which had been partly allowed for the kerfuffle over the penalty.
The team’s packed in two goals and a red-card; both the competition’s dismissals to date have been in this group. Botswana substitute Patrick Motsepe, like Gabon’s Bruno Mbanangoye, made an impact within minutes of his introduction. Unfortunately for Motsepe, his impact was on Pascal Feindouno’s right shin-pad. And you have to wonder why Motsepe looked so surprised to see his red card. He was outdone in the wide-eyed wonder stakes by Guinea’s Ismael Bangoura, who was as shocked as we were by his ability to lose his head in front of goal while all around were keeping theirs.
Double figures might have resulted if Bangoura hadn’t been so wayward, which suggests that Guinea v Ghana could go any and every way. Ghana only need a point after two fantastic goals and nothing else whatsoever did for Mali, whose one likely prize from this tournament is to have its most fouled player in Barcelonas Seydou Keita. It might have been a different matter if Mali’s mountainous centre-forward Cheik Diabate hadn’t struck both posts with a long-range first-half free-kick (a “good touch for a big man,” presumably).
From a not dissimilar part of the pitch, Asamoah Gyan pinged one in the net in the second half – further confirmation that Martin O’Neill will want him back at Sunderland – before the sublimely-talented Andre Ayew slalomed his way to the sort of second goal we expected Ghana to score plenty of against Botswana.The second round of group games more than made up for the scrappy disappointment of the first round, and makes predictions of what will happen next pointless, which, given my record so far, is just as well.
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