They huffed and puffed. And Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana, Africa’s two best footballing nations according to Fifa’s rankings (so it must be true), are looking good to contest Sunday’s African Cup of Nations final, without looking good in getting there. That said, they form half of what was nearly a semi-final line-up that some (i.e. me) thought ideal – the two favourites against the two most exciting and capable underdogs. Zambia have been in that latter category literally from day one and their expansive first-half display against tournament flops Senegal. Co-hosts Gabon, and their vibrant young side with a vibrant old centre-forward, would have been ideal semi-finalist number four. 

Cote D’Ivoire, eventually, proved clinically efficient party-poopers in Equatorial Guinea. But the Gabonese would have been a different story. Mali may also be a different story. But they will have to produce the fluency and energy of their good 41 minutes of the tournament rather than the languidity of their other four-and-a-half games. Bad sides have habitually qualified for the later stages of mediocre tournaments, which this ACN now looks like being – Argentina in Italia ’90 the prime example. Mali have been almost a bad side for almost the whole of this event. But they were good enough for long enough against Botswana and Gabon to be considered better than Maradona’s mess of a team.

Eurosport’s Matt Jackson was “not sure either side could argue they’d done enough to win” the Gabon/Mail game. But he seemed to have something of a downer, particularly on Gabon, for much of the afternoon. His belief that the game had “no creativeness and no cleverness” suggested he needed to look at a replay of the goals. And Gabon could certainly argue on two counts that “they’d done enough to win” having struck the post twice, with Mali keeper Soumbeyla Diakite helpless on the first occasion and lucky on the second. Pierre Aubameyang “should have scored” when sent whizzing clear by Daniel Cousin’s well-timed pass on the half-hour. But it was hard to see what else he could do in the time available other than loft the ball past the frantically on-rushing Diakite and hope that it would go in off the inside of the post instead of out off the outside of it. And when Cousin’s second-half mis-hit found the frame of the goal, he would have had the time and space to make sure from the rebound if that rebound had rebounded ANYwhere but back into the arms of the unsuspecting Diakite. 

Gabon, in this game more than any other, were a better side with Cousin than without him. He and Aubameyang have been easily the best front two in the tournament (and, again, in this game more than any other) and Cousin continued to win his aerial contests right until his 68th-minute substitution. But he looked shattered as he departed. And Mali’s comeback was more inspired by their increased tempo and the long-overdue introduction of a centre-forward – even a discombobulated beanpole like Cheik Diabate. Diabate’s well-struck low shot on the turn went in under the body of Gabon’s previously impressive custodian Didier Ovono. But it was difficult to fault Ovono. He would have saved the shot had he stayed on his feet and kicked it away, school-playground style. 

But that was not the instinct of a proper international goalkeeper – Angola’s Carlos would have done exactly that, which I suggest proves my point. And Ovono kept Gabon in the game with saves before and after the goal, from Modibo Maiga, during Mali’s 20-minute spell of giving a toss, as well as being unluckily honest during the penalty shoot-out. He went, as opposed to guessed, the right way for all five of Mali’s spot-kicks and was yards closer to his line than Diakite who, like most keepers in front of penalties in the tournament, seemed to treat one as an excuse for some triple-jump practice. Gabon’s thundercloud centre-back, Bruno Manga, could probably have stared his penalty into the net faster than he eventually chipped it in, arrow-straight down the middle past Zebedee Diakite’s hop, skip and jump to his north-west. 

However, “Barcelona’s Seydou Keita’s” winning penalty was as perfectly struck as his four colleagues’ previous kicks. And while Aubameyang’s miss was decisive, you suspect Mali could have scored from the spot all night if required. If you can “deserve” to win a lottery, Mali deserved to win this shoot-out. Many of the Gabonese side, meanwhile, will be in the London Olympics, so if any of the squillions of unsold football tickets are for their games, they might be worth a punt. The Equatogenarians’ tournament departure was somewhat less emotive, and ITV4 schedulers are probably grateful not to have Cote D’Ivoire’s semi-final, as it has been “nothing more than functional from the Elephants,” according to Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce, a new phrase for everyone’s football lexicon, I’d venture.

Tournament results of 1-0, 2-0, 2-0 and 3-0 suggest an improving side warming to their task. But these stats lie. The most remarkable aspects of Cote D’Ivoire’s displays are goalkeeper Boubacar Barry keeping any clean sheets, let alone three and that, in Bony Wilfried, the Ivorians have found a worse finisher than Gervinho. It was lucky that Wilfried’s goal against Angola came from a yard with the ball already hurtling netwards. When he missed a stoppage-time sitter here, Gervinho – who set up the chance – must have thought his job was under threat. By then, Cote D’Ivoire were comfortable, having scored two genuinely fine second-half goals to add to the strong finish Didier Drogba applied to the first-half chance he was gifted.

We were initially denied sight of Drogba’s penalty failure two minutes earlier by the loss of the satellite feed (an errant snowflake on a cable somewhere in Kent, perhaps?) – making Matt Jackson’s reference to “the crowd behind us” odder still. Emmanuel Danilo’s fine penalty save turned Drogba’s eventual goal celebrations into those of an angry man. Had Andre Ayew tried something similar, with his perennially dislocated shoulders, his arm might have flown into orbit. The venue, Malabo, was Pluckyville long before the end – and a fast emptying one at that, Gabon were certainly better losers. But the Equatogenarians had a better tournament than some ludicrous pundits (i.e. me) forecast. And hopefully manager Gilson Paulo can take this improved form into the 2013 ACN qualifiers, which start…oooh…about now.

We all had to pretend not to enjoy the closing minutes of Ghana’s tournament-trademark scruffy win over Tunisia. But it was more fun than the foul-ridden 117-minute shambles which preceded it. Centre-back Aymen Abdennour had hinted at reversion to childhood in his tetchy battle with Gabon’s Cousin during Tunisia’s last group game. And having kept his nerve in an impressive display against Ghana, it was a shame to see him start this game’s late unseemliness. His forearm-smash into an indeterminate part of Andre Ayew’s upper body was hardly part and parcel of “shepherding the ball out of play for a goalkick,” as Eurosport’s increasingly self-righteous Stewart Robson claimed. Yet without Ayew’s “aaagh” as he flew backwards to the turf it was hardly a red card offence either. Robson also believed the referee was in desperate straits as the Tunisians each took turns to scream into his face as a protest – and most of the squad too, to judge by the number of CAF bibs bobbing around in the melee.

Indeed, Robson claimed that “the referee’s lost complete control here – every time there’s a free-kick, he’s surrounded,” a statement that ought to win any unintended irony awards going. And he certainly had it in for Ayew, asking “does he have to scream?” when Ayew took a studs-up tackle in the chest moments later. Well…yes…actually. The problem with the match was that the referee had “complete” control and was over-required, as well as over-prepared, to use it – only attempting the advantage law once and even then having to pull play back immediately. John Mensah and Saber Khalifa produced powerful headers to turn 90 tetchy minutes into 120+ tetchy minutes. And it was appropriate that the game was more lost than won by the decisive goal, Ayew showing a composure which deserted him later to steady himself and guide the ball into the net after Tunisian keeper Aymen Mathlouthi helpfully dropped an overhit cross at his feet.

Mathlouthi naturally copped the blame and the camera close-ups in the immediate aftermath of the goal. But at least one Tunisian defender should have followed him and been in the closest proximity, as Ayew did. For all Andre Ayew’s involvement in the key moments, it was younger brother Jordan who impressed most, with a cameo display of the power and pace we’ve been expecting in vain from most of his colleagues. Zambia didn’t quite show all their power and pace in their facile 3-0 win over Sudan, who had run out of “firsts” with which commentators could fill the often-lengthy spaces between action. Analyst John Duncan was quick to spot Sudan’s tactical flaw, as they started with “one up front and two banks of four.” And with the Sudanese midfield passing the ball like a team of Ray Wilkinses, Zambia were only fitfully threatened.

Zambian coach Herve Renard continued to lose his cool in inverse proportion to his side’s actual difficulties – a very English “Mayuka, where are you going?” echoing around the almost completely empty stadium, when Zambia already led 1-0 and looked far more likely to score again than concede. But even Renard was smiling and high-fiving after Sudan were finally forced into a 4-4-1 formation – Saif Eldin dismissed for what Duncan thought a “clumsy” challenge but looked like a hack at Rainford Kalaba’s knee to everyone else. (I don’t wish to sound harsh on Duncan, by the way, as he kept up Eurosport’s high standards of punditry). Sudan’s keeper Salim Akram was unlucky not to benefit from making a decent penalty save. But there was a justice to it. While he ignored the law on encroachment – saving the shot from a part of the six-yard box he couldn’t physically have reached otherwise – his defenders abided by it – and were left watching from afar as Zambian skipper Christopher Katongo netted the rebound from his poorly taken spot-kick.

Zambia’s third was nicely curled in by substitute James Chamanga, who Tim Caple identified as being “quite a superb performer today” and about whom Caple waxed surprisingly lyrically for someone who had only left the bench 20 minutes earlier – almost as if Caple mistook him for Kalaba and was too proud to admit his mistake. At the height of their potential, both semi-finals could be classics – Ghana v. Zambia especially. The traditional pattern of semi-finals, and the distance this tournament has been below potential thus far, suggests otherwise. And that suggests Fifa’s rankings could, for once, be right.

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