AFCON 2017: Seconds Out, Round Two

by | Jan 22, 2017

Group A: Gabon 1 Burkina Faso 1; Cameroon 2 Guinea-Bissau 1

Gabon took seven minutes against Burkina Faso to match their display against Guinea-Bissau. Yet though the non-boycotting locals weren’t happy, Gabon are one win from a quarter-final, in a less-dismal group than once feared.

Five substitutions were injury-enforced, including Jonathan Pitroipa’s early, potentially tournament-threatening, ankle-turn. However, on 22 minutes, replacement Prejuce Nkoulma, chased a proper hoof upfield, outfought one defender, took a heavy touch to beat another and was as surprised as anyone when it rolled into the net. He celebrated by sitting on the bench to which he’d been dropped after the opening game. Coach Paulo Duarte’s thoughts? Unknown…until the next Burkinabe line-up is announced.

Gabon had been denied the lead by keeper Herve Koffi’s unbitten-fingernail onto the bar from Denis Bouanga’s piledriver and by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s terrible rebound header in front of a gaping goal. But just as Eurosport’s Dave Farrar was bemoaning his contribution, Aubameyang was sent flying in the penalty-box by Koffi. Booking. Penalty. Goal. And locals, briefly, assuaged.

Farrar released a bagged-up cat when he remarked “schedules to be met” as two minutes’ first-half stoppage-time was announced, half the correct amount. However, suitably rested, the teams served up fine second half. Bernard Traore nearly waltzed through Gabon’s traffic-cone defence. While Bouanga was wheeling away in triumph when his drive was toe-poked clear by Koffi. And Gabon will be talking about Kevyn (sorry) after Aboue Angoue wasted Bouanga’s fabulous cross.

The coaches’ final whistle reactions were revealing, Duarte fiercely delighted, Gabon’s Jose Antonio Camacho just fierce. “Hard to say either side deserved to win it,” Farrar mused. Easy to say which side should have won it, though.

After an epic journey, Guinea-Bissau finally reached “plucky” territory as Cameroon sealed their first AFCON finals’ win since 2010 with two fine second-half goals. But the game will be remembered for Piqueti’s 12th-minute stunner, a 60-yard run past two defenders and an oak tree (Cameroon centre-back Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui) and a 15-yard right-foot thunderbolt to which keeper Fabrice Ondoa only had a yard to move but simply hadn’t the time.

Until Guinea-Bissau tired, this was no backs-to-the-wall stuff. Indeed, they nearly scored next. Francisco Junior scuffed a first-half shot when well-placed. And Frederic Mendy’s 54th-minute lob over Ondoa was cleared by a repentant Ngadeu-Ngadjui after Adolphe Teikeu briefly assumed the oak-tree role. Yet despite being 12 minutes from that outcome, this game never looked likely to be the group’s fourth 1-1 draw.

Cameroon should have levelled before half-time, Vincent Aboubakar shooting limply in front of goal. But Sebastien Siani rifled in a 25-yarder on 61 minutes and Ngadeu-Ngadjui made full amends for his earlier ill-timed mannequin challenge by thumping home a 20-yarder on 78 minutes.

Group B: Algeria 1 Tunisia 2; Senegal 2 Zimbabwe 0

Missing: One African Footballer of the Year. Height 5ft 10, Weight 10st 4. Answers to “Riyad.” If found, please contact Algeria National Football Team, Franceville, Gabon.

Eurosport’s Leroy Rosenior first indicated that something wasn’t right when he said “Mahrez will certainly take THIS one,” as Algeria lined-up an early free-kick against Tunisia.“ Someone called “Yacine Brahimi” took it and when “Brahimi” took another one moments later, Rosenior sheepishly admitted: “I got it wrong again,” possibly stirring childhood memories of Dick Emery (Please…PLEASE have heard of Dick Emery).

Mahrez wasn’t Algeria’s only metaphorical absentee, as the atypically-lively Tunisians sealed a tournament-saving victory with an own goal and a penalty and the Fennecs put in one of the worst half-hours imaginable from a side chasing a game after going 2-0 down. Although they would have taken an early lead but for Tunisian keeper Aymen Mathlouthi’s left leg poking Islam Slimani’s header to safety.

The game got scrappy and argumentative when the host broadcaster’s clock (having as good a tournament as host team Gabon) went back to “00.00” after 25 minutes. And Tunisia grabbed a scruffy lead soon after half-time when Youssef Mksani’s (mis)fortunes in front of goal against Senegal were consigned to history by Aissa Mandi diverting his cross into the net.

Wahbi Khazri was again improbably influential for a Sunderland player, engineering Naim Sliti’s 66th-minute penalty from Faouzi Ghoulam’s…ahem…ghoulish defending. And Algeria’s disjointed game-chasing coughed up only substitute Sofiane Hanni’s excellent stoppage-time finish, leaving them no time to even get Tunisian sub keeper Rami Jridi into the TV pictures before the end. They’ll need more than a returning Mahrez to qualify.

Zimbabwe’s qualification hopes may also have gone west after their outmuscling and outclassing by Senegal. But they have contributed more to this AFCON than many early departures from previous tournaments…more, arguably, than some possible quarter-finalists here. And they have played in two thoroughly enjoyable group games.

Senegal beat them, however, more completely than 2-0 suggests. The Lions of Teranga reached Gabon with a 100% qualifying record of mainly one and two-goal wins. And they reached the quarter-finals with another two 2-0 wins, which suggests a phobia of, or allergy to, the very concept of a “third goal.”

Against better sides than Zimbabwe and luckier sides than Tunisia, this could cost Senegal. “Eighteen minutes in, it’s all about game management for Senegal,” Eurosport’s Tim Caple gloomily predicted. And he was right-ish, although the game proved better than that. But predictions of a Senegalese title triumph would be better-informed if Tunisia or Zimbabwe had made it 2-1 with significant time left.

Still, even Mame Biram Diouf didn’t look entirely hopeless, although no-one would confuse Mame with Sadio Mane after their relative performances. In a 14-minute “supercharged opening” (Caple), Mane made a slightly awkward finish look like the tappiest of tap-ins, Henri Saivet curled home the perfect 20-yard free-kick. And Mame should have made it 3-0…but didn’t, perhaps fearful of bringing his team-mates out in rashes.

Indeed, Senegal could have had nine, running lanes through Zimbabwe, whose star on Sunday, Khama Billiat, couldn’t replicate his heroics even when he saw “the whites of the goalkeeper” (Rosenior). Caple had likened Billiat to a “Rolls-Royce.” But after Billiat binned a good late chance, Caple called that the Warriors frontman “more like a Dacia.” The voice of Eurosport clearly doesn’t need car endorsement contracts.

Group C: Cote D’Ivoire 2 DR Congo 2; Morocco 3 Togo 1

Just after an hour of Cote D’Ivoire’s struggles against DR Congo, the TV cameras cut to watching Togolese boss Claude Le Roy, whose expression screamed: “How did we not beat these?” It was then a very pertinent question. Fortunately for them, the Elephants improved greatly and deserved to draw a nearly-cracking game.

They showed all the strength of current flavours-of-the-tournament Senegal but none of their fluency. And a deflected shot by Geoffroy Serey Die proved an appropriate salvation, a man who can barely football at all, great though he is at stopping others. When Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce said it was the Ivorian skipper’s first international goal, no-one was surprised. Fulham fans might have been more surprised by Neeskens Kebano’s finish to what co-commentator Bryan Hamilton insisted was a training ground move but looked more like a reaction, albeit a terrific one, to a knock-down from a throw-in.

DR Congo continue to delight, even if they have yet to play hugely brilliantly. Cote D’Ivoire were getting into something like a stride when Wilfrid Bony headed them level from one of Max Graedel’s 94 terrific dead-balls. But the Leopards reacted superbly, albeit helped by Serge Aurier’s seemingly drug-induced defending, letting Junior Kabananga score the freest header in international football history.

Sub Salomon Kalou’s spectacular 92nd-minute volley would have won it for the Elephants only for a superb offside decision (“it’ll be talked about forever,” Hamilton opined, incorrectly). But while tournament finals’ history is full of dismal group-stage performances from eventual champions, there is no sense, yet, that Cote D’Ivoire are in that category.

“Three at last…three at last…Thank God a team has scored three at last.” Morocco’s relative goalfest against rapidly-tiring Togo means that either they or Cote D’Ivoire will miss the quarter-finals. And Group C, after a desperate start, will finish with two “winner-takes-all” games.

Despite leading when Mathieu Dossevi finishing off the team goal of the tournament, Togo look the least likeliest qualifiers. And despite breaking this AFCON’s two-goals-per-team ceiling, Morocco were fortunate that Togolese talisman Emmanuel Adebayor missed a glorious headed opportunity to make it 2-2 shortly after half-time. Good watch thought it was, the Atlas Lions’ 3-1 win was error-strewn.

Stewart Robson laid into Togolese keeper Kossi Agassa, although Youssef En-Nesyri’s decisive third goal was down to the shot lifting off a length on Oyem’s fifth-day test-cricket surface. And after half-time Robson was more auditioning for African national coaching jobs than co-commentating. “I’m getting tired of saying ‘Adebayor with the clearance’,” he said just as…Adebayor cleared a corner. “I’m saying nothing,” Robson continued, which said everything.

A fun game. But Morocco boss Herve Renard nearly tore his famous, skin-tight white shirt with his chest-out rages. And Farrar was, correctly, “not sure we’ve seen” the champions “in this game.”

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

Ghana’s “what-we-have-we-cling-onto-desperately” win over Mali might have justified claims from one end of the Stade Port-Gentil for a refund, as swathes of the match occurred 120+ yards away. The Black Stars were composed in the first half but were cacking it throughout the second, their qualification after two games starkly contrasting with Senegal’s.

Eurosport debated whether Ghana would recoil or benefit from playing their first four games at Port-Gentil’s 115-yard-by-75-yard sandpit. But, as Hamilton noted, “at least they’ll know every bump, every twist, every turn.” And Ghana probably benefitted from playing the first match of both Port-Gentil double-headers.

Neither side created many clear-cut chances and Mali created very few until the frantic closing stages. Asamoah Gyan semi-acrobatically head home Jordan Ayew’s great cross. Andre Ayew blazed one wide after denying Gyan a tap-in. But the wonderful noise made by Mali’s huge (mainly ex-pat) support exaggerated their, huge, side’s attacking threat after half-time.

Yet Ghana needed Razak Brimah’s instinctive save from Kalifa Coulibaly’s instinctive stoppage-time volley and TV cameras speared to catch multiple Ghanaians running to semi-mob Razak afterwards. While Mali striker Moussa Malenga has presumably had better days or he wouldn’t have an international career.

Wayne Boyce, drunk (metaphorically…of course) drunk on the atmosphere, declared it a “fantastic game” while Hamilton contented himself with “very interesting game.” Five on-target shots in 90+ minutes suggests Hamilton had the better perspective.

Some match stats gave Uganda two shots, possibly including an over-hit free-kick which was cleared volleyball-style by Pharoahs keeper Essam El Hadary. Yet the Cranes were a little unfortunate to be the first team out of the finals. The Guardian newspaper’s Nick Ames thought them “marginally the better side.” But that was perhaps pushing it. Still, he’s a proper journalist…and he was there.

Defensively, Uganda were admirable. But they didn’t expose El-Haddary’s weaknesses, which are being partly-masked by unwarranted respect for his age. “It’s a good interception,” Eurosport’s Russell Osman claimed, over pictures of Hadary dropping a cross. That no Crane was on-hand to punish the error spoke volumes about Uganda’s cautious mindset. Joseph Ochaya netted on 52 minutes but wouldn’t have reached the cross had he not been offside.

Egypt occasionally flourished. But a goal wasn’t really “coming” until it came on 89 minutes. Uganda’s midfield was caught too far over to their right. Egypt worked the ball across-field as slickly as possible on this pitch. And the otherwise-anonymous Mohamed Salah showed composure and vision to set up substitute Abdallah El Said, whose low drive nutmegged injured Cranes keeper Denis Onyago.

What happens next…

You may read this after Group A finishes. So you’ll know about Cameroonian and Burkinabe qualification, with the latter winning the group on goal difference or goals scored or…lots, as Guinea-Bissau are knackered and Gabon borderline-rubbish. Technically, any team can join Senegal; from Group B. Probably, Tunisia will.

Unforecastable fun will ensue in Group C. So I…forecast DR Congo as group winners and Cote D’Ivoire sending their AFCON-winning 2015 boss Herve Renard home early. There’s gratitude. Mali/Uganda will be a goalfest (for them, 1-1) because it isn’t at Port-Gentil…but an irrelevant goalfest because Egypt won’t lose to a possibly complacent, possibly under-strength Ghana, especially with any winner staying at Port-Gentil.

Win-doubles on Morocco and Gabon, then.

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