Contrast in stylesEquatorial Guinea looked to play quick, direct balls to their forwards, especially the forward who was spearheading their attack – Javier ‘Rocky’ Balboa. Libya, meanwhile, went for a more patient build-up with full-backs Abdulaziz Belraysh and Abubaker Rabea marauding down the flanks and the lively Walid Mhadeb pulling the strings whenever he had the ball. Libya were in full control for that first fifteen minutes and there was only one winner. That was as good as it got.
Equatorial Guinea show their strengthsFor the next thirty-five minutes Equatorial Guinea demonstrated their qualities. The combination of Balboa, Ivan Bolado, Thierry Fideju and Randy had Libya cornered. The former three interchanged positions at will, confusing a wobbly Libyan defence. Spanish-born attacking midfielder Bolado was instrumental as his eye for a pass and clever lay-offs added some much-needed craft to the Equatorial Guinea cause. The hard-working Fidjeu chased and hurried, out on the right-wing mainly but making several runs into the box. There was plenty of industry from Randy on the left-wing as he regularly got the better of Belraysh, although his final delivery was often disappointing. The most impressive player of all, though, was central midfielder Ben Konate, a powerhouse of a man who bounced all over the Estadio de Bata turf, his searching long balls often finding the wingers and his incisive passing often finding Bolado to do the rest. Konaté isn't just my Man of the Match, he's my Man of the Day.
The second half was more low-key, it looked like the lack of match fitness from both sides was taking its toll. I was starting to question whether Equatorial Guinea had forgotten what was on offer if they won the game – $1m kitty to share between the squad. National-hero Rodolfo Bodipo came on and was carried off with a suspected archilles injury which could potentially end his tournament. His replacement Daniel-Bladmiar Ekedo assisted with his first touch just a minute after coming on, Libya’s attempts to play an offside trap failing. The ball sent Balboa clean through and he opened his body before neatly dispatching the ball into the top right corner. Ker-ching! Everyone went home happy. I was happy – l like host nations; don’t we all?
Mangane mangles Senegal’s defensive line into unrecognisable bits
In the other Group A match, widely-tipped Senegal were humbled by Hervé Renard’s pacey, well-disciplined, counter-attacking Zambia side. Senegal had a clear weakness throughout the match – their defence plays high up the pitch and are prone to pace from in behind. Zambia, with a mixture of pace and through balls (along the ground and over-head), exploited this weakness to great effect. Senegal centre-back Kader Mangane seemed like he was on a one-man mission to mangle their defence – which only conceded 2 goals in qualifying, which all came in one game away to DR Congo – into unrecognisable bits. Emmanuel Mayuka, one of Sandals For Goalposts’ players to watch at AFCON, opened the scoring as Senegal’s defence went for a nap which left me feeling very smug for much of the game. Minutes later, Zambia doubled their lead, Rainsford Kabala beating the offside trap/dodgy high line and finishing.
Senegal’s midfield unable to deal with well-organised Zambia
Senegal’s midfielders were sloppy in possession and as soon as they went a goal down it was always going to be a tough task. This Zambia side are a well-drilled, a team who have become accustomed to the expectations of their coach. Senegal coach Amara Traore’s reaction to going two goals down was to take off a midfielder, Remi Gomis, and put on a striker – a move which made Senegal lose the little, if any, control they had of midfield. Senegal, thus, had four strikers on the pitch and it didn’t help whatsoever. Mamadou Niang was sacrificed at half-time and his replacement Issar Dia provided the width needed, Senegal looked slightly more fluid. Surprisingly, considering how well-conditioned Renard’s teams are, Zambia faded in the second half and Senegal managed a goal through Dame N’Doye – a well-placed finish on the half-volley after controlling it on his chest.
Bottle-throwing Zambia coach Renard gave a performance of his own, aggressively gesturing, wriggling and cavorting as he beckoned his young starlet, Mayuka, to fulfil his instructions in a thick southern France accent : “MAYUKHAAAAAAAAAA!” Forget Balboa, for me the highlights of the day were the touch-line antics of this Frenchman who may very well end up being one of the stars of the tournament.
Work to do for Senegal
As for Senegal, it isn’t the end of the world, winning their next two games-which are winnable – should ensure qualification. On the basis of this performance, the lack of players comfortable in possession in midfield is a major worry. More worryingly, Senegal aren’t suited to a high-line and if they try that kind of nonsense against the likes of Ivory Coast, who they may well meet now in the knockout stages, they’ll be swept aside like a turd on a wedding aisle.