For much of the pre-match period – the 30 minutes or so before kick-off when that high excitability starts kicking in – it didn’t look like we were going to get any action. The turf of Estadio de Bata waterlogged, or ‘water-locked’ as someone said on twitter, the ball barely able to roll when the referees strolled for a walk on the pitch for inspection. The prospect of a match, or maches for that matter (the evening kick-off was also at the same stadium), being played was bleak. “So what can you do after you’ve prepared yourself for a certain kick-off time?” Asked Eurosport’s main commentator for the game, Tim Caple, to co-commentator and Captain Obvious extraordinaire, Matt Jackson. He replied in his typically workaday manner: “You can’t do anything other than sit and wait.”
So sit and wait I did. At 10 to 5 there was an announcement that the game would go ahead and kick off would be at 17:15 GMT. I did a bit of fist-pumping – football on a waterlogged pitch is fun with the wonderful risk of dreadful mistakes. It’s fast, intense and often inspired; water spraying everywhere, never-ending slide tackles, players wading through water and, my favourite, launch football. Players will be at risk blah blah blah? Not interested. I sat on my armchair and enveloped myself into the action.
Libya 2-2 Zambia
Osman makes the first splashes of each half
In the first minute Libya made the first splash of the game, a clever through-ball with the outside of the boot by Walid El Khatroushi finding Ahmed Osman, who was cutting in from the left wing, to finish smartly, opening his body, for his first international goal. The game-changer was when El Khatroushi, who also impressed in the opening game with his tendency to make things happen, had to come off with a strain.
On the second minute of the second half, Osman scored his second goal of the game as he went past two Zambia defenders in the box, he miscued his shot but it found the inside of the post and went in. It seems the Libyan left-winger was on a mission was showing the cunning intelligence that English Premier League viewers have come to expect from his namesake, Leon.
Zambia adopted a very sensible, direct approach due to the wet conditions, it simply wasn’t a pitch to play football along the ground. There was no passing out from the back, the defenders disposing the ball as far up the pitch as they could to attackers and the keeper’s distribution was particularly direct.
Mayuka shows even more promise
Disappointingly, there were less touchline antics from Zambia coach Herve Renard this time around, probably due to the lack of tactics needed for the game. His last appearance was filled with cavorting, bottle-throwing and screaming “Mayukhaaaaaaaaaaaa!” He didn’t need to scream much this time around, though, as his 21 year old starlet added to the promise he showed in the game against Senegal. When Zambia equalised on the half hour, Mayuka, with the ball lofting over his head, showed good technique to guide the ball into the bottom corner past Samir Abod in the Libyan goal. Then came an over-head cross-assist, the best piece of skill so far in the tournament. With his back to goal, the Young Boys striker chested the ball and then expertly executed an over-head kick which found the head of fiery captain Chris Katongo for the The Chipolopolo to equalise for the second time.
Due to the severity of the conditions, it’s difficult to read much into the game. Zambia admittedly couldn’t get their passing game going while Libya looked a much-improved team, for what it’s worth. Both teams deserve credit for providing an entertaining match on a pitch which wasn’t ideal.
Equatorial Guinea 2-1 Senegal: The Real Clasico
So I stuck it to the football snobs today, rejecting both Liverpool v Manchester City and, more smugly, Barcelona v Real Madrid, The Classico. El Clasico. El Grande Clasico. Or whatever else they call it. The biggest match to have ever existed. Ever. Complete madness, right? Yes, but I was treated to the most emotional winning goal I have ever seen. Equatorial Guinea, who are ranked 151st in the world beat 43rd ranked Senegal. Now Senegal know how France felt just less than 10 years ago.
When I previewed Group A, I wholeheartedly thought Nzalang Nacional wouldn’t make it out of the group, as did plenty of ‘experts’, they had too many factors against them – notably their ranking, non-existent history in the competition and their preparations had not been ideal at all with new coach Gilson Paulo only taking over on the 2nd January.
The POWER of the Home Crowd
Blowing my own trumpet, to my credit, I did say that the one thing Equatorial Guinea have going for them is the home crowd during my preview of Group A. Throughout history we have seen teams hosting major tournaments punch well above their weight. And we saw it again today. With Senegal equalising on the 89th minute there only seemed one winner in this game, Equatorial Guinea pinned back in their own half making last-ditch clearances and tackles. Senegal were piling forward with the drive of a side who didn’t want to go home – and with the strikers they had on the pitch, a goal in them – whilst there seemed little fuel left in the Equatorial Guinea tank. Then Kily somehow unleashed an astonishing thunderbolt into the net deep into injury time, the stadium erupting in euphoria. It is the goal of the tournament so far and I can’t imagine it being beaten – on an importance and emotional level. On a personal note, it is one of the most emotional goals I have ever experienced.
Senegal problem #1: incoherency
As the old adage goes: “Individuals don’t make a team.” Football has no place for individuals at a high level, tennis is a sport for individuals, when it’s not the Davis Cup, football…not so much. During these two matches Senegal haven’t looked a team, despite possessing a collection of strikers who have scored a total of 325 goals between them in European top-flight leagues. The midfield was almost non-existence with no ball-carrier/regista that is essential in controlling the game, as was the link from midfield to the centre-forwards. Issar Dia offered some sort of creativity from the wings, but there was a lack of orthodox wingers in the team and that was due to the overload of strikers in the squad. I only touch on these problems briefly but they made defending very easy for teams and meant the stikers did not get the type of service they receive at club level.
Senegal problem #2: persistence with the high-line
The Lions of Teranga’s persistence with the high-line saw them take a huge gamble as Equatorial Guinea striker Balboa regularly threatened to breach it, on several occasions there was no daylight between him and the last centre-back when it was called offside. It was an outstanding problem against Zambia and it remained a problem in this match. One can’t help but think even if they progressed further in the tournament they would have been exposed against better teams.
The miracle of Equatorial Guinea
Most hosts usually have a ‘superstar’, someone who is well-known or played at a high level in a somewhat major league for a long time, but coming into this tournament this team had no superstars to the outside world. I like to think of myself as a footballaholic but I had never heard of any of any of the players in the Equatorial Guinea team. That’s because I have no active interest in the Equatorial Guinean league or the lower reaches of the Spanish tier, or the other obscure-ish leagues their players strut their stuff in, and that’s another reason why I doubted them – they simply weren’t good enough to me. Everything justified my thinking, from their ranking, friendly results and so on. And no amount of ‘home crowd’ stuff made me think they could go far – South Africa, Switzerland and Austria have all gone home early as hosts in recent major tournaments.
All credit Equatorial Guinea and Gilson Paulo, though, because they have organised themselves supremely well and 2 wins in 2 games against countries ranked significantly higher than them is no fluke. I’m jumping on the bandwagon.