Group A – South Africa 0 – 0 Cape Verde; Angola 0 – 0 Morocco
As opening days go, that could have been better; a goal-free pair of matches. South Africa seemed overwhelmed by the occasion and had little in attack, whereas Cape Verde (featuring Chateuroux’s ‘Nando’ Neves as captain and Lille’s Ryan Mendes as starters, and Dijon’s Julio Tavares as sub) at least had a go; Mendes shouldered the difficult task of leading the attack for the tournament debutantes against the hosts, deployed on the right-wing of a capricious 4-3-3, and had obviously been given explicit instructions to drive at South Africa’s attacking fullbacks. The plan yielded mixed results as Mendes was often too tenacious (to put it nicely), but Cape Verde will be happier with the point than their opponents.
Angola v Morocco was a better match, and initially seemed unlikely to end goalless, but the two teams checked each other repeatedly, and the final ball was lacking. Montpellier’s Abdelhamid El-Kaoutari was the only Ligue starter here; Moroccan gaffer Rachid Taoussi may have seen his assured performances at left-back for Montpellier, as that is where he was deployed. The wisdom behind playing a centre-back laterally must have come in an attempt to shackle the aerially dominant Manucho for Angola; that worked, as Manucho was effectively neutralized, but playing El Kaoutari wide had unintended consequences; jerky Angolan wingers Mateus and Geraldo used their agility to win free-kicks which, thankfully for Taoussi’s men, weren’t capitalized on. Younes Belhanda was still recovering from a muscle strain, and Taoussi may have been hoping he could sit this one out, but he was subbed on around the hour mark in an attempt to break the deadlock. He showed a few rusty touches, but a few clever ones too; one particularly teasing action saw him bait defenders Lunguinha and Bastos, slipping between them just before they collided into each other, knocking the latter unconscious. Unpronounceable Corsican winger Chahir Belghazouani (Ajaccio)was introduced at the final stages, but did not get of a chance to produce one of his trademark belters as he acquiesced to the turtle-paced end to the match.
Group B – Ghana 2 – 2 DR Congo; Mali 1 – 0 Niger
Day two saw excitement! Goals! And France-based players in the middle of it all! For Ghana, John Boye (Rennes) had the tough task of trying to handle one Africa’s hottest strike forces, Dieumerci Mbokani and Tresor Mputu; on the whole he was solid, winning aerial duels against Mbokani and forcing Mputu to the periphery. His defensive partner Akaminko did less well, at fault for Mputu’s first, and then the penalty that Mbokani scored to bring the scores level, Ghana having gone 2-0 up with goals just each side of half time from Agyemang-Badu and Asamoah. Evian’s Mohamed Rabiu came on for Ghana to replace an ineffective Christian Atsu just after Mputu’s goal, and was promptly gifted the chance to restore a two-goal cushion, but snatched at the shot which rolled into keeper Kidiaba’s welcoming arms; he was largely anonymous for the rest of the game. His Evian colleague Cedric Mongongu, meanwhile, limped off bitterly with 15 minutes to go with what appeared to be a groin strain; on the whole, he had dug in and given a good account of himself for DR Congo, but had been at fault for Ghana’s first, finding himself stranded in the middle of a Gyan / Asamoah interchange that led to Badu sliding in the first game of the tournament.
Mali v Niger saw eight of the Malian starting line-up coming from the French leagues, in a match that saw Niger so very nearly hanging on for a point (their first ever point in a CAN) until Seydou Keita’s 84th minute strike – Ajaccio’s Fousseini Diawara lofted in a freekick which Niger keeper Kamilou Daouda failed to keep hold of, and Keita scored in an open goal. Cruel for Niger, but a merited win for Mali, who had been the most creative and threatening side throughout.
Group C – Zambia 1 – 1 Ethiopia; Nigeria 1 – 1 Burkina Faso
Another pair of draws – albeit with goals – and a pair of red cards, too, in Group C. The holders Zambia must have thought they were good for the win when Collins Mbesuma scored in first half added time after Ethiopian keeper Jemal Tassew had been sent off at 35 minutes for a tackle best described as ‘Schumacher-esque’ on Chisamba Lungu, but Ethiopia dug deep, and were rewarded with a goal for Adane Girma on 65 minutes. They then doggedly held on for a well-earned point.
In the second match, Bakary Koné, Djakaridja Koné and Jonathan Pitroipa started for Burkina Faso. Nigeria looked more organised from the outset, and their goal on 23 minutes was superb; John Obi Mikel with a ball from the halfway line, which Brown Ideye laid on for Emmanuel Emenike to finish with a sort of flying backheel lay-off, which was really something. Burkina Faso were not disheartened, however – Pitroipa was gliding around threateningly. With Celtic’s Efe Ambrose sent off for a second booking with 20 minutes to go (a harsh decision, given some of the tackles going in unpunished in the match), Paul Put put on Alain Traoré, not starting as he was recovering from injury. It looked like it might have been a move too late for Burkina Faso but in injury time, the change came good – Pitroipa cut the ball back (while falling over backwards) which went between two defenders, and Traoré wasn’t going to miss from there. Exciting for the neutral, but Burkina Faso were very, very lucky – their next match is against Ethiopia on Friday evening, which on the strength of the performances in the first game, you would probably call for Ethiopia.
Group D – Cote d’Ivoire 2 – 1 Togo; Tunisia 1 – 0 Algeria
In the final pair of first-round matches, two late goals secured two vital victories. Togo very nearly held on for a point against the big guns of the Cote d’Ivoire, Brest’s Jordan Ayite scoring at the end of the first half to level the match after Yaya Toure’s early goal; however Gervinho scored in the 88th minute to take it for the Elephants. For them, PSG’s Siaka Tiene (a.k.a.”Chico”, according to his shirt) started in defence, and St Etienne’s Max Gradel on the wing (later replaced by Lille’s Saloman Kalou), in what was a slightly unconvincing performance from the favourites. At the hour mark, Togo had a goal disallowed after taking a corner too quickly (while a substitution was taking place) and after that, seemed to settle for parking the bus; Reims keeper Kossi Agassa, as expected, was a key player, saving a great chance from Gervinho on 76 minutes before getting stranded for the storming goal two minutes from time. Lorient’s Alaixys Romao started, tasked with stopping Gervinho in midfield; Auxerre’s Prince Segbefia and Reims’ Floyd Ayite made substitue appearances. Togo coach Didier Six then left Jordan Ayite stranded in the post-match press conference after apparently mumbling something about the disallowed goal and wandering off. Particularly given the later result, Togo will be ruing not holding on for a point.
Tunisia v Algeria was a cagy affair, with Tunisia starting particularly nervously, but they grew in confidence as Algeria failed to score, and Youssef Mksani’s last-minute goal took the three points. Tunisia started with TFC’s Aymen Abdennour in defence, booked after less than quarter of an hour for a typically robust challenge on Sofiane Feghouli, playing the ankle rather than the ball, and Evian’s Saber Khelifa up-front. Abdennour’s pairing at centre-back, Walid Hichi, is a lethargic colossus whose usefulness in the air is offset by a lack of pace, so the Toulousain has to do most of the legwork, chasing Feghouli and Foued Kadir around the edges of the pitch. Nevertheless, he turned in a respectable performance as Tunisia kept a clean sheet. Khelifa was somewhat a victim of Sami Trabelsi’s conservative approach, limited to sporadic counter-attacks; while he was quick to spring forward from the right flank when Algeria over-committed themselves going forwards, his end product was lacking as he wasted attack after attack.
The Fennecs, stymied by their opponent’s defensive approach, dominated possession but could not break through, with Ajaccio’s Carl Medjani in defence, his teammate Mehdi Mostefa and Marseille’s Foued Kadir in midfield. Much of Medjani’s defensive work was done for him by his midfield, so when the ball did escape to him, he had the role of distribution to a vacant fullback. The Corsican vice-captain performed his required duties admirably until the introduction of Oussama Darragi, who brought a new focus to the Tunisian attack and forced the Algerian defenders to act with diligence; a warning Medjani did not heed as he was ambushed by Darragi and Harbaoui, a mistake that would lead to the Carthage Eagles’ only breakaway of the match. Mostefa was the heart of an industrious Algerian midfield three, keeping position, making tackles, passing safely – Coach Vahid knows what to expect from Algeria’s Mr. Consistency, who also displayed important versatility at the end of the match when he was converted to a right-back. Kadir, meanwhile got himself into super positions, especially in the first half, but his end-product was lacking as well as he snatched at two shots which rolled tamely into Ben Cherifia’s hands.
So far, we have seen two goals for France-based players, Lorient’s Alain Traore for Burkina Faso and Brest’s Jordan Ayite for Togo – Follow all the action in the CAN-Tasy Football League! This gives clubs points for the performance of their players at the Cup of Nations (see notes in dashboard for details) so fans aggrieved that key players are absent can cheer themselves up a bit. After the first round, Ajaccio are heading the French league with 22 points, and are an impressive fourth overall. The dashboard will be updated after each pair of games so keep an eye on it, and see how your club is doing at the CAN!