AFCON 2017: The Semi-Finals

by | Feb 3, 2017

Mark Murphy’s tip for the AFCON 2017 top were toppled. But the psychological damage inflicted on a young Garth Crooks-lookalike hurt him even more.

Egypt 1 Burkina Faso 1 (Egypt win 4-3 on penalties)

Herve Koffi should be a Burkinabe hero. He isn’t. Herve Koffi will be the focus of Burkina Faso’s penalty shoot-out loss. He shouldn’t be. Hassam El-Hadary is Egypt’s penalty shoot-out hero. He should never have had the chance to be. The Burkinabe master-tactician who thought a 20-year-old goalkeeper the ideal choice for among the most vital penalties in Burkinabe international football history should be the villain, alongside whoever didn’t instantly and derisively snort, “you must be f***ing joking,” or variants thereof.

For seven penalties, the shoot-out took predictable shape, given the keepers’ tournament form. The athletic Koffi made one superb save, all-but-saved one of those “Pannenka” penalties with baffling success rates and got close to Mohammed Salah’s perfect spot-kick. El-Hadary went as far the wrong way as a creaking 44-year-old could to three penalties, recalling Peter Shilton’s wretched shoot-out efforts in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. Then…

It was easy to rage at the senseless waste of all Burkina Faso’s match-domination, which was not just thanks to Egypt’s defensive mindset. Goalkeepers are not naturally unsuited to penalties, they kick plenty of dead balls, after all. Yet they usually face each other’s spot-kicks, when there’s no outfield players left. And their minds are elsewhere during those shoot-outs. Perhaps standing on a halfway line while others endure the shoot-out process can give non-regular penalty-takers too much time to think. Being a keeper gives you nothing like enough.

Presumably, Koffi showed the nerve and precision in training to suggest he could take what experts believe is one of the penalties entrusted to the expert penalty-takers. But those experts also say that shoot-out pressures are impossible to replicate in training. And surely more so for keepers, directly involved in half the event.

Burkinabe coach (at the time of typing) Paulo Duarte used the “good-in-training” line on a disbelieving Burkinabe press corps after the game. But to take the fourth penalty? “Goodness me,” said Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce, as close to echoing the thoughts of an entire audience as broadcast regulations and common decency permit.

El-Hadary’s critics, such as Boyce’s co-commentator Stewart Robson, might say the ancient Egyptian made his decisive saves because he was too slow to dive out of the path of two poor penalties…and let’s not forget that Burkinabe “starman” Bertrand Traore’s kick was more lamentable than Koffi’s.  But he is currently preparing for his fifth AFCON final, so probably has few f**ks to give about them.

Burkina Faso’s policy in normal and extra-time seemed to be “shoot-on-sight-actually-just-shoot-and-see-what-happens,” designed to test El-Hadary’s weaknesses. Boyce was “not quite sure where the ten shots came from” as he saw the half-time stats. “There’s those ten shots you were talking about,” Robson replied, after the highlights revealed said policy.

However, El-Hadary somehow ensured that those oft-exposed weaknesses were exposed to no decisive effect. Especially when substitute Banou Diawara’s stoppage-time effort to control Charles Kabore’s drilled pass morphed into a harmless, albeit goalbound, lob which El-Hadary almost audibly struggled to tip over the bar as he unsteadily retreated from his starting position just outside the six-yard box, toppling backwards like Shilton trying to save Andreas Brehme’s deflected shot in that World Cup semi.

Egypt defended as much as everzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, having taken 20 minutes to adjust to midway-decent playing conditions after their Port-Gentil tribulations. But it was a case of having to, as the Burkinabes showed an attacking intent not always evident on big AFCON occasions…check recent finals for details. Still, both goals came from out-of-context brilliance.

Mohammed Salah curtailed the Burkinabes’ best spell of the match to that point with his laser-precise left-footer from Kahraba’s perfectly-weighted set-up on 65 minutes. And eight minutes later, Aristide Bance, who maintained his cult status from the starting line-up, brilliantly chested down and volleyed home Bakore’s flighted cross in one unexpectedly balletic movement, after Steeve (correct spelling) Yago’s cheeky back-heel.

However, Burkina Faso’s penalty-taker selection proved decisive. Duarte, is apparently mates with fellow-Portuguese Jose bloody Mourinho (to use his full name). And they apparently spoke on the phone before the game (although who phoned who wasn’t made clear).  It wouldn’t surprise me if Mourinho, having a post-match meltdown on the BBC when Koffi took his kick, was the above-mentioned master-tactician. Idiot.

Cameroon 2 Ghana 0

“No great shakes,” Eurosport’s Dave Farrar said of Cameroon, early in the tournament. He need not feel too bad about that, though, because (a) he was only quoting general opinion and (b) despite the Indomitable Lions’ presence in Sunday’s final, they haven’t been “great shakes” for any great length of time. In a tournament this stodgy, they haven’t had to be.

For half-an-hour against the increasing misnomer that is the Black Stars, Cameroon were what has passed for dynamic in Gabon. But they opened the scoring against what passed for the run of play in Franceville. However, they were very worthy winners, even if their stoppage-time breakaway second goal but a fractional gloss on the final score.

Ghana will depart Gabon with a reputation as a team made in their coach’s image; dour and dishevelled (although the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson found Avram Grant “relaxed, with a “sardonic wit”). They were the dictionary definition of disjointed, so it wasn’t Port-Gentil’s pitch that made them that way after all. And a lot of very good players simply didn’t play very well at all. Tim Caple’s pre-match comment that it was “very, very difficult to under-estimate the importance of the Ayew brothers” turned out to be prescient, rather than the linguistic faux-pas it seemed at the time.

Both sides came into the game with star strikers in uncertain form and fitness and sat on the bench. But Cameroon at least forced Ghanaian keeper Razak Brimah into two early saves. Both were described as “great” but he would have done well to get out of the way of either Robert Ndip Tambe’s header or Benjamin Moukandjo’s left-foot volley.

The Indomitables were on the front foot all over the pitch in their dynamic spell. Even reckless defender Collins Fai played the ball more often than not when he went rushing headlong into tackles as he does. But Jordan Ayew, the only Ayew brother who appeared to be on the pitch in the first half, perhaps should have scored when he got in behind the Cameroon defence and fired across the face of goal five minutes before the break.

This was enough to question whether Ghana were repeating the “sh*te first-half” tactic which caught DR Congo unawares in the quarter-final, or were just sh*te. And their third quarter display kept the question alive. But on 72 minutes, it was answered emphatically. Wakaso Mubarak, Ghana’s midfield Collins Fai, clattered into one tackle too many, 30 yards from goal. And while he didn’t receive the deserved yellow card which would have left him suspended for the final (“good refereeing, that” said Eurosport’s Adam Virgo, for no obvious reason), the result was the same.

John Boye tried to duck underneath Moukandjo’s free-kick in the touchingly naïve hope that Razak would come and collect the ball. Razak, as per, wasn’t quite getting there and when the ball skimmed off Boye’s back, he wasn’t getting there at all. It fell instead to Indomitable centre-back Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui who provided something much better than a centre-half’s finish from a tight-ish angle. Razak was fined by Ghana’s FA and very nearly dropped having come into the game under a cloud after a Facebook row with critical fans, to whom his response had been “Foxtrot Oscar.” In this moment, he rather proved their point.

Caple wondered aloud if “perhaps” the “real Ghana” would “emerge.” The suspicion remained, though, that we’d been watching the “real Ghana” all along. And even introducing Asamoah “the talisman” Gyan failed to improve their fortunes sufficiently to really threaten an equaliser, much to the chagrin of one young Black Star sub, caught on camera twice undergoing a violently gesticulating return to recent puberty when his on-field apparent superiors loused up another quarter-chance.

Cameroon’s “star” but unfit striker Vincent Aboubakar should have made it 2-0 in stoppage-time. However, the game’s official “star man” Christian Bassogog did make it 2-0 two minutes later with a delightful left-foot finish after he was sent clear of an over-committed Ghana rearguard. After Farrar impugned Cameroon’s “shakes,” he told viewers to “remind me of that in two weeks when they win it.” To be fair, he was right at the time. But…well…we’re nearly there. And we’re ready.

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