The 2019 African Cup of Nations: Down To Sweet Sixteen

by | Jul 5, 2019

The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) has got worse instead of better. By now, the wheat and the chaff have been separated. But there’s more than eight teams’ worth of chaff in this chaffing tournament. Mark Murphy sighs despairingly.

Group A: Egypt 2 Uganda 0; Zimbabwe 0 Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 4

Fair play to whoever found DR Congo’s REAL team, after their non-league XI lost their first two games. Now if someone at Africa’s football confederation (CAF) could find the real match officials…

For all the Democratic Congolese improvement on show, the most influential impact on the scoreline came from Zimbabwe’s sub keeper, Elvis Chipizeze, who found innovative ways to metaphorically throw the ball into his own net. Elvis Costello could not have done much worse, even if you’d nicked his glasses.

Elvis fumbled Jacques Maghoma’s free-kick onto the crossbar and nearly palmed the loose ball into the net to save striker Jonathan Bolingi the bother. He was exposed by the mysterious disappearance of his ‘defence’ on 34 minutes as Cedric Bakambu bore down on goal unchallenged for 50 yards before thumping the ball home with the outside of his right foot (the fancy dan).

But DRC’s qualification-clinching second-half brace were both Elvis/Cedric combos. On 63 minutes, he “mowed” a clean-through Bakambu, as the AFCON website’s google-translate-esque English match report suggested, not wholly inaccurately. Bakambu netted the penalty. And 15 minutes later, Elvis fumbled Bakambu’s 20-yarder to give sub Britt Assombalonga a tap-in Britt Ekland could have netted (and if you’re asking who Britt Ekland is, I cannot save you).

Egypt, meanwhile, did what Egypt currently do, sealing victory by half-time and sauntering through the second half confident that their opposition wouldn’t have the temerity to score, or anything so bold. But Uganda (managed by Julian Assange as played by Michael Sheen) busied themselves immensely and were unlucky not to draw, let alone score.

Mo Salah ‘won’ and brilliantly netted a 38th-minute free-kick to break an increasingly tense deadlock, with Egyptian keeper Mohamed El-Shenawey the man-of-the-match to that point. And in first-half stoppage-time, Ahmed El-Mohamaday drilled home an excellent low right-footer after Salah had ‘dummied’ (missed) Ayman Ashraf’s cross.

Egypt’s group then. But maximum points and no goals conceded looks more impressive for them than it was.

Group B: Madagascar 2 Nigeria 0; Guinea 2 Burundi 0

Madagascar are the story of the group stages. They beat a ‘Nigeria XI’ to WIN the group. Their first goal was a direct gift, their second a deflected gift. And already-qualified Nigeria were wretched. But Madagascar’s progress is a delight. Especially as the on-screen score caption for their last-16 encounter with Congo’s Republican Democrats will read “MAD” v “CON.” You have to make your own fun in this tournament.

Madagascar led on 12 minutes when Nigeria’s Leon Balogun briefly prioritised doing the splits over clearing a (admittedly awful) 20-yard backpass, letting Lalaina Nomenjanahary in to round the keeper and slot home, provided he kept a straight face.

The second goal, on 53 minutes, was exoneration of sorts for Carolus Andriamahitsinoro, so publicly upset at being substituted attention-grabbingly soon after half-time in the win over Burundi. His 25-yard free-kick looped up off just-introduced sub Wilfried Ndidi, who’d conceded said free-kick, and dropped into the only area of the goal out of general reach.

Nigeria created half-a-million half-chances but looked like a second-string until Alex Iwobi’s introduction. Of course. Because he’s Premier League. Except Iwobi made FA difference to a Nigerian performance as grim as their dark green change kit. Madagascar were out on their feet late on. But, joyously, not out of the tournament.

Burundi embodied a dismal AFCON (bar Uganda) for East and Central Africa’s sub-confederation, CECAFA, a major example of the potential quality deficiency if 47% of competitors qualify for finals. And any Burundian hopes of a tournament-saving thumping of Guinea were crushed when Christophe Nduwarugira’s 12th-minute ‘professional’ foul on Mohamed Yattara reduced Burundi to ten men…and Nduwarugira to tears.

Pierre Kwizera’s 25-yarder was tipped over by Guinea keeper Ibrahim Kone six minutes later. But Guinea were worth their 25th-minute lead, Yattara neatly side-footing in after Jonathan Nahimana’s save from Francois Kamano fell nicely to his left foot. Yattara’s left-foot side-foot combo made it 2-0 on 52 minutes, from Ibrahim Traore’s neat pass. Nahimara did himself a mischief photogenically-saving Ibrahim Cisse’s long-ranger. And not even sub Saido Berahino could save Burundi.

(PS: I’m not saying this game didn’t overly-impact on the tournament, but CAF TV’s highlights are actually ‘highlights’ of the Benin/Guinea-Bissau second-round non-event. And, three days later, no-one at CAF has noticed).

Group C: Senegal 3 Kenya 0; Algeria 3 Tanzania 0

It all ended in orthodoxy in Group C. Convincing wins for the big boys, Algeria sealing theirs before half-time and passing up 94 second-half chances, Senegal passing up a penalty opportunity before half-time and dismantling Kenya after it.

Sadio Mane’s soft 29th-minute spot-kick, after Philemon Otiendo upended Saliou Cisse, summed-up Senegal’s soft first half, though it was well-saved low to his right by Kenya keeper Patrick Matasi,. Matasi then tipped Ismaila Sarr’s header onto the bar. But Sarr’s and Mane’s penalty-box fortunes improved with their team’s after the break.

Senegal keeper Amigo Gomis saved Dennis Omino’s 20-yarder on 53 minutes. However on 63 minutes, Sarr volleyed home after Matasi made a hames of Cisse’s cross, a mistake which will overshadow his otherwise fine display. Mane made it 2-0 on 71 minutes after shoving FIVE out of the way of a big boot downfield and slotting the ball home And on 77 minutes, Otiendo sent Sarr skywards for Senegal’s second penalty and received his second booking for conceding a penalty, Mane this time drilling the spot-kick low, inches past Matasi’s dive to his left.

Algeria should be fresh for the last 16. Islam Slimani almost literally strolled through the Lake Tanganyikan gap between Tanzania’s centre-backs to open the scoring on 35 minutes. Their second goal, four minutes later, was slick, Adam Ounas netting after a combination with Slimani which might have opened up proper defences. But Ounas barely had to change direction or break stride to round keeper Metacha Mnaza for the third goal, in first-half stoppage-time.

Abdillahie Yussuf should have headed home when unmarked from six yards on xx minutes, as Algeria saved their energies for tougher tasks ahead, although tying their own bootlaces would probably have fitted into that category after this (mis)match. Mbwana Samatta could be a very good player in a good side, rather than the bottom-ranked team in Egypt. And Tanzania had their moments in this tournament (they played in its best game to date) Just none of them here.

Group D: Morocco 1 South Africa 0; Cote D’Ivoire 4 Namibia 1

Meanwhile, back at the Group of Death…life!!! And, in the ‘Group of one-nils,’ a relative goal-fest. Even Wilfried Zaha scored. And Wilfred Bony…no…don’t be daft. Cote D’Ivoire changed their team yet had the same old struggles against the limited Namibians. Then an offside flag, the non-waving thereof, gave them a break. Max Graedel was a length offside when he ran onto Franck Kessie’s 39th-minute pass and lashed a great right-foot shot past Laydt Kazapua.

On 58 minutes, Italian fourth division soundalike Serey Die pinged in a fully-40-yarder, although it took a key deflection off Ryan Nyambe’s bonce…Planet Football hadn’t gone doolally yet. Thirteen minutes later, Cote D’Ivoire keeper Sylvian Gbohouo gifted Namibia their first goal in Egypt when he pinpointed Joslin Kamatuka who took his new present past a pratfalling defender and stuck it in the net. Then Planet Football did go doolally, Zaha firing home right-footed from 15 yards, as Namibia tired, = substitute and headline-writers’ plant Maxwel Cornet firing home a fourth goal.

Neither Morocco nor South Africa seemed unduly perturbed about playing for the nil-nil which would have won the group for Morocco and qualified South Africa. But you couldn’t tell if they WERE playing for it, as so many games in Egypt have seemed like that. Achraf Hakimi’s 63rd-minute 20-yarder against the bar was casually side-footed enough to look accidental. And Percy Tau’s excellent left-foot drive a ball width wide was the best of pitifully few South African shots.

If there was an in-front-of-goal non-aggression pact, though, Moroccan skipper M’Bark Boussoufa missed the meeting, taking genuine delight in toe-punting the ball into the roof of the net on 89 minutes, after South Africa had fannydangled around at attempts to clear a near-post corner. South Africa were thus made to wait to the very end of round three for a side bad enough to be a worst-placed third-placed team.

Group E: Tunisia 0 Mauritania 0; Mali 1 Angola 0

Two nil-nil draws would have qualified everyone from this group bar Mauritania. In contrast to Group F, where nil-nils would also have done a job, there was a positive attitude from three of the four teams, especially Mauritania.

Indeed, the rank outsiders could have won the group, given the first-half chances they automatically created by chucked floaters into the box. At one stage, Mauritanian boss Corentin Martins keeled over in his technical area in disbelief as another glorious headed chance flew past the target. Ishmael Diakite was the main ‘culprit,’ as Tunisia struggled with crosses, their defenders’ reactions to each other a mix of “WTF?” and “who are you?”

Sadly, half-time halted Mauritania’s momentum and they were out on their feet AND the tournament by the end, though with plenty to be proud of. “The Carthage Eagles have flown into the round-of-16,” CAF’s twitter account crowed about Tunisia’s qualification. Hardly. In fact, Tunisia have stunk the place out. Back them to win the whole thing, then.

A point against a much-changed Mali would have edged Angola past South Africa into the next round by one goal on goal difference. But their attitude was over-cautious from kick-off-to-last-whistle. Their answer to going behind was to introduce Wilson Edouard, whose appalling miss against Mauritania ultimately cost Angola qualification. And if he WAS the answer, they’d misheard the question.

The game’s only goal was a beaut, Amadou Haidara driving into space in front of but 25 yards from goal and despatching the ball into the top corner with minimal fuss but maximum power (FIRST GOAL?) Late on, Mali introduced under-20 World Cup star, Sekou Koita, who showed flashes of his ability, alongside flashes of the physical difference between under-20s and senior football. But with Angola terrified and terrible, Mali could afford such indulgence and still win the Group.

Group F: Cameroon 0 Benin 0; Ghana 2 Guinea-Bissau 0

Eurosport’s John Roder and Stewart Robson were puzzled by Benin’s five changes for this match, not realising how much of a nil-nil they were playing for. Though Steve Munie as a lone striker offered a clue. Benin’s one attacking threat, Michael Pote made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance late on.

But by then, the sheer stupidity of a weakened Cameroon’s display was clear to the world. Stupid fouls, stupid offsides. And number nine Stephane Nehoken, whose entire point escapes me yet. Check the CAF TV ‘highlights’ if you don’t believe me about how shit this game was. It was about as fun as diarrhoea and Benin’s post-match celebration of their ‘achievement’ was an insult to the sport.

“The Indomitable Lions are being held by the Squirrels,” Roder noted. Quite.

For 45 minutes, Ghana/Guinea-Bissau was only a little better, although both sides struck the goal-frame and at least appeared to be trying. Guinea-Bissau’s Piqueti Silva fizzed a 20-yard right-footer which Ghana keeper Richard Ofori unconvincingly pawed onto the bar and Ghana’s Jordan Ayew struck the post after speeding clear of a purely nominal offside trap.

Ayew made it 1-0 straight after half-time, seeing off some powdery defending (outmuscling it wasn’t), telegraphing his shot but still netting. Joseph Mendes’ left-foot drive hit the outside of Ghana’s post. But Ghana then began to play as they can. Thomas Partey’s close-range conversion of Abdul Baba’s cutback on 71 minutes made it 2-0 and Andre Ayew took his turn hitting the post late on.

“Ghana win ghastly group,” the headline would have run, had there been anything in it to merit one.

The Second Round

I live in hope of an improving tournament now that the best teams are left (and Benin). Though that might be the anti-depressant effects of the strong painkillers I’m on. Egypt should beat South Africa by half-time, as per their 2019 AFCON modus operandi. Morocco will, please God/Allah/Buddha etc…, beat Benin easily. Or one-nil with a last-minute own goal off a centre-half’s arse. I’m not fussed.

Uganda/Senegal has a tie-of-the-round look. Nigeria/Cameroon does not. Both ties could go to penalties…or the latter could just feel as if it has. Madagascar’s fate depends on which group of Democratic Republican Congolese shows up to play them. If Mauritania could have Tunisia at sixes and sevens at the back, Ghana could have the one North African disappointment in this North African tournament at eights, nines and tens. Algeria should be too slick for Guinea. And Mali should be too something for Cote D’Ivoire, though I’m not quite sure what.

Then it is the quarter-finals and…VAR. Which is where the fun REALLY starts?