The 2019 African Cup of Nations: Algeria All Over It
Despite a sensational second round, the 2019 AFCON was beyond redemption after the putrid group stages. But the knock-out rounds gave it a go. The right team won. Mark Bright provided some worthwhile punditry. And VAR…erm… sort of… worked.
People may hypothesise over whether Algeria would have beaten Egypt in a Cairo International Stadium semi-final, which would have been an ‘event,’ given the football enmity between the nations. But Algeria won a number of games convincingly in an AFCON over-stocked with ‘tight, cagey’ (dull) affairs. And they won, beating pre-tournament favourites Senegal twice, despite lacking a fully-functional centre-forward…although Senegal were even more lacking in that department.
Senegal 1 Benin 0
Liverpool finally did for Benin, Everton’s Idrissa Gueye boring a 70th-minute hole in boring Benin’s blanket defence with the help of Liverpool’s Sadio Mane. Still, Benin were, for them, outrageously expansive. “Benin win a corner,” I, rightly, considered noteworthy after 20 minutes. But within five minutes Mickael Pote had an audacious backheel at goal, which was the closest TO a goal at that stage.
By half-time, Senegal were clicking into enough gear, although shortly after it, Senegal keeper Amigo Gomis verified his first name when he applied air-traffic control to a harmless backpass and the ball rolled just wide. VAR denied the recurrently offside Mane an offside goal. And once they led, Senegal could have significantly impacted upon the AFCON’s wretched goals-per-game ratio, as Benin’s ‘Plan B,’ referenced by Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce, revealed itself to be ‘turn to mush and ride your luck.’
Emmanuelle Imorou made the most coherent of three clearances as Mane sprung Benin’s offside trap (at last). Mane netted again but VAR showed he was offside again. And Gueye holed the blanket again before being hauled down by Olivier Verdon, who was red-carded in slow motion, a suitably dismal last significant act of a dismal Benin campaign.
Nigeria 2 South Africa 1
After their group-stage huffing-and-puffing, Nigeria were in two of the better knockout games, defying the presumed large Egyptian support for South Africa, after the hosts’ shock defeat left thousands of fans with tickets for a now non-existent Egypt match.
Early pressure from the newly-confident South Africans came to nought and Nigeria led on 27 minutes when Samuel Chukwueze played a one-two with an unsuspecting Bhule Mkhwanazi’s leg and forced the ball home, Chukwueze nearly reversing into a touchline TV camera in over-eager celebration. And only South African keeper Ronwen Williams pushing Peter Etebo’s 50th-minute free-kick onto the bar kept surrogate Egypt in it.
Enter VAR again, brilliantly. Numerous time-consuming reviews revealed that South Africa’s 70th-minute leveller was legit, a clearly-offside Bongani Zungu heading home at the back-post but only after Percy Tau’s free-kick hit the back of Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo’s neck. The decision took an age but it was time well-spent…even Cameroon’s women’s team might have agreed.
It didn’t save South Africa, though. And neither did the otherwise brilliant Williams, who pat-a-caked sub Moses Simon’s 89th-minute corner onto (the again unsuspecting) William Ekong’s foot and into the net. Occasionally wretched luck for South Africa. But, just, the right result.
Algeria 1 Cote D’Ivoire 1 (Algeria win 4-3 on penalties);
It shouldn’t have needed penalties. But when a player as, ahem, ‘luckless’ in front of goal as Baghdad Bounedjah is your penalty-taker in normal-time…
Algeria deservedly led at half-time, Sofiane Feghouli neatly side-footing home on 20 minutes. Cote D’Ivoire’s Max Graedel, the most consistently-picked of Cote D’Ivoire’s ever-changing forward line, earlier hit the post. But Bounedjah’s 46th-minute penalty, given when he himself was floored by clumsy Cote D’Ivoire keeper Sylvain Gbohoud, struck the crossbar on its way to the Suez Canal. The striker, whose resting face in this AFCON has been ‘distraught,’ started crying…and would be crying now but for his team-mates’ shoot-out success.
The unlikely combo of Wilfried Zaha setting up Jonathan Kodja’s superb left-foot finish brought the sides level on 82 minutes and, ultimately, to penalties. Sub Wilfred Bony predictably continued his career’s downward spiral with a pathetic shoot-out spot-kick; he’d scored twice in Cote D’Ivoire’s 3-1 win over Algeria in 2015’s quarter-finals on the way to tournament victory. But for Serey Die to hit the post with the decisive penalty, straight after Algeria’s best player Mohamed Belaili hit the same post, was a harsh long-service award for the veteran midfielder.
Still, at least it stopped Bounedjah crying…
Tunisia 3 Madagascar 0
It was sad but perhaps inevitable that the tournament’s best story should be ended by a team as unlovely as Tunisia.
First-half chances were sufficiently at a premium to allow deep contemplation as to why Madagascar, and their watching president Andry Rajoelina, were wearing red instead of their usual green, against a Tunisian side whose colours are white and…red. But what first-half chances there were fell to the predominantly white-shirted Tunisians. Wahbi Khazri’s 20-yard free-kick was photogenically tipped onto the bar by Malagasy keeper Melvin Adrien, who then turned Ghaylen Chaaleli’s shot wider than it was already going.
Khazri had a goal ruled out straight after half-time but the game was up five minutes later when Ferjani Sassi’s shot bounced off Thomas Fontaine’s arse, un-sighting and wrong-footing Adrien. Youssef Msakni then netted the rebound, after Khazri’s 60th-minute shot hit the post. And Naim Sliti grabbed the third, from one of those late three-on-one breaks which so often catch out teams chasing games. A happy ending of sorts, though, as Madagascar’s “players and officials” each received membership of the Knight of Malagasy National Order, which was nice, and a reported £250,000, which was handier, although whether that was ‘each’ wasn’t specified.
SEMI-FINALS: Senegal 1 Tunisia 0;
“One-nil to the Senegal,” would be the song of the tournament, if the bands at every match laid off the modern jazz squawks. But in this match WAY above all others, ‘one-nil’ told none of the story.
Dylan Bronn was desperately unlucky to score a farcical 101st-minute own goal took Senegal to the final, Tunisian keeper Hassan Mouez palming Cheikou Kouyate’s inswinging free-kick into the defender’s face. But that was neither the first nor last penalty-area farce.
Tunisia should have needed snookers by half-time. Youssouf Sabaly’s right-foot post-shaker nearly gave Senegal a 25th-minute lead. And 13 minutes later, Sabaly found the wrong side of the net, having rounded Mouez before slipping as the pitch crumbled un-timeously. A reprieved Tunisia improved after half-time, Taha Kneissi lobbing over on 47 minutes when all-but-clean-through. Then, spot-kick mania. Three given. One rescinded. None scored.
Ferjani Sassi powder-puffed his 72nd-minute kick at a waiting Gomis. Mouez magnificently saved Henri Saivet’s decent 80th-minute 12-yarder. And on 114 minutes, Idrissa Gueye was penalised for a handball that was clearly unintentional in real-time but needed video confirmation as such. Mercifully, really. Any penalty shoot-out might well be nil-nil to this day.
Right result. Codswallop way to get it.
Algeria 2 Nigeria 1
Unscriptable. Unstoppable. It really was ‘Riyad Mahrez’s Algeria’ when the Man City misfit’s last-kick free-kick from the edge of the ‘D’ flew past Nigerian keeper Daniel Akpeyi, the most dramatic tale to tail a great game…for a semi-final.
Bounedjah was ‘luckless in front of goal’ (yet) again on 29 minutes, snapping onto Kenneth Omeruo’s sloppy defending but firing dead-straight at Akpeyi’s chest. But Nigeria centre-back Ekong was (again) genuinely-luckless when Mahrez’s 40th-minute cutback found the net, via his thigh.
Algeria had been the better side, though not by as much as their fans’ ninth-minute (!) ‘Oles’ suggested. And Nigeria’s improvement, out-of-necessity, helped. But video assistance did the real damage, spotting the 70th-minute Aissa Mandi handball missed by this particularly dozy ref. Ighalo rolled home the very eventually awarded spot-kick.
Algeria could have won it with less of a last-gasp. “Was that the chance for Algeria?” Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce asked as Sofiane Feghouli ignored a clean-through Mahrez overlapping on his right and blazed an 88th-minute chance over. No…no it wasn’t. Ismael Benacer’s 92nd-minute 25-yard left-footer thumped the crossbar. And then, with a minute left, Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi fouled Benacer on the edge of the box…which is where we came in…
THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: Nigeria 1 Tunisia 0
For a match which no-one wants to play (copyright every lazily stereotyping English print or broadcast journalist in my lifetime), Nigeria and their Rupert Murdoch tribute act boss Gernot Rohr seemed inordinately pleased to win it. Bronze-medal matches, apparently, only matter when England are playing (see the Netball for, latest, details).
Another Tunisian episode of “The Wrong Goalkeeper” proved decisive, Moez Ben Cherifia repeating Mouez’s ‘comedy-as-farce’ semi-final error by palming Jamilu Collins’ cross into defender Yassine Meriah’s shins for Ighalo to seal the AFCON’s Golden Boot from a yard-and-a-half.
It was a wearingly-bad game; every Tunisian game was when they dominated possession, like they did here. Commentary-box protestations of ‘Arsenal’s’ Alex Iwobi’s indifference would have carried more clout if he hadn’t played half the tournament indifferently. But at least Eurosport’s Adam Virgo reached 150 complaints about “lack of quality in the final third,” for which he was surely being sponsored.
FINAL: Algeria 1 Senegal 0
“Right. Only 88 minutes, 42 seconds to hold on,” cynics would have said after Algeria’s lightning start to the final, little realising that that was EXACTLY what would happen.
AFCON finals are disappointing by decree, it would seem. It was fascinating to see how Senegal could waste so much possession and how much persistent fouling each of Algeria’s back…ooh, let’s say nine could get away with. But that made for a putrid spectacle in a match where one team was better than that and the other was MUCH better than that.
Bagdad Bounedjah did well to get into a shooting position for the goal. But his shot would likely not have beaten Senegal keeper Amigo Gomis even if it was on-target. And it was a cruel goal. The ball looped high off Salif Sane’s shin (in for suspended Kalidou Koulibaly) before unscientifically dipping under the bar to everyone’s surprise, from commentary box to keeper’s jersey. Some Senegal defenders were caught on-camera giving out to Gomis for being rooted to the spot as the ball fell into the net. But Gomis did nothing because he could do nothing.
Senegal’s hapless Mbaye Niang actually fizzed a good long-range left-footer just over on 37 minutes. But Algerian keeper, Lawrence Fishburne stunt-double Reis Mbohli, only had a couple of photogenic saves to make.. When the referee ultra-casually pointed to the spot after Ismaila Sarr’s 60th-minute cross struck Adlane Guediora’s arm-by-his-side, video assistance was always going to rectify the error. And Niang blazed more typically, horribly off-target after rounding Mbohli six minutes later.
Four minutes were added to the second half, despite the VAR and two lengthy injury hold-ups and six substitutions. But Senegal wouldn’t have scored in four days’ stoppage-time. And it was wholly appropriate that this AFCON literally ended with some shit refereeing.
Stats suggests it was “too hot” for this AFCON to entertain. Most of the many poor games were middle-of-the-day kick-offs. Two too many involved Benin and Tunisia (Eurosport’s Tim Caple said “someone” should “tell (Alain) Giresse (Tunisia’s manager} that you can’t get through on a draw”… when he’d got through to the quarter-finals on four). And the three-minute CAF TV highlight clips were often padded out with crowd and dug-out scenes, kick-offs, and 20 seconds of weather and team news.
The officiating was atrocious. Decisions big and small were constantly wrong. Some referees’ assistants seemed unaware of what the offside law WAS. And while misuse of video assistance wasn’t as prevalent as feared, plenty of footage showed how poor so much refereeing was.
Eurosport did OK. “Whispering’ Mark Bright combined extraneous noises with an inability to speak into his mic properly. Yet in Madagascar’s quarter-final, he real-time dissected their problems playing out of defence with formidable accuracy. For five minutes, Bright was outstanding. It didn’t last.
Eventually, the tournament fell two goals short of two-goals-per-game. And its top scorer was a Watford one Premier League season wonder. Which was about right.