Niger 1-2 Tunisia
Msakni has magic bootsThe game had barely settled down before Tunisia scored a goal. Receiving the ball near the half way line, Youssef Msakni dribbles his way past two Niger players in a style befitting a young Abedi Pele before coolly slotting the ball into the far corner in the fourth minute. The Niger defence was evidently not at the races as a couple of minutes later Msakni tricks his way into the box again but this time he cannot find the target. At this point the Tunisia front-line were licking their lips thinking about the amount of chances they would get.
Maazou is too hot to handleIn the ninth minute, failure by the Tunisia goalkeeper to deal with a rebounded clearance allows William Tonji Ngounou to equalise for Niger. Watching this live, I believe that the goalkeeper was fully to blame but replays show that the Nigerien striker Moussa Maazou had a hand in making sure the goalkeeper did not claim the ball. He appears to flick at the ball with his hand causing it to move out of the keeper's grasp, the Tunisia defence protest but the goal stands. From then on Niger start to get into the game with the focal point of their attack being Maazou. His pace caused the Tunisia defence many problems and he found himself getting a few opportunities at goal but a dodgy touch or poor composure prevented him from capitalising. He should have had a penalty just before half time when he was pulled down inside the box but the referee played on. At half -time it was anyone's game for the taking.
Jemaa breaks Niger hearts
The second half was a balanced affair. Maazou was an ever present thorn in the Tuninsian defence’s eye. He continued to give problems to the Tunisia back line throughout the second half. Tunisia started to get back into the game more after they went stale in the first half.Youssef Msakni tried to win the game by himself waltzing through the Niger defence only to shoot wide.A frantic 30 seconds of play occurred when the Tunisian defender Aymen Abdennou hit the post after foraging forward then the ball went straight down the other end and Maazou almost had chance at goal but was tackle at the last moment. Later on Niger midfielder Boubacar Issofou blazes over after good work by Maazou down the left had side. This game was heading towards a draw but in the 89th minute half time substitute Issam Jemaa fires Tunisia into the lead. After a poor attempt at an offside trap by the Niger defence Jemaa claims the ball, cuts in inside the box and rifles the ball into the back of the net. That was not the end of it as Tunisia could have had a third. Msakni again works his way into the box and the ball finds it’s way to Osama Darragi . Darragi flicks the ball over the rushing keeper and fired the ball against the bar. A 3-1 scoreline would have been harsh on Niger seeing as they controlled periods of play during the match.
Gabon 3-2 Morocco
The ROHR of the home crowd
A few days ago I wrote about the power of the home/host crowd – the way it can grain every ounce of effort even from mediocre teams. I have a soft spot for Morocco, after having predicted them as darkhorses, but the joie de vivre of the home crowd made me switch my allegiance today, no longer did I want Morocco to be in the tournament, I cheered Gabon all the way!
Back to the host crowd theory, if we go by the FIFA rankings, Gabon aren’t as mediocre a team as the Equatoguineans but they were certaintly not as good, on paper, as their opponents today. Certainly, for much of the game Morocco were dominant; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was isolated, Benatia and Kantari all over his spikey hair. Additionally, Morocco played a specialised holding midfielder in Adil Hermach instead of a makeshift one – it was Belhanda who played there in the Tunisia loss, his astray pass resulting in the Korbi free-kick goal – and they looked far too good for the Gabon midfield. Taking an early lead through Housseine Kharja, with the liveliness of Youssouf Hadji and Mehdi Carcela it only seemed a matter of time before they added to their score.
So where did it all go wrong? Gabon were never going to outplay Morocco through the centre of the park but in the full-back positions Morocco were susceptible to pace on the both sides – Chretien Basser with a love for attacking and Badr El Kaddouri vulnerable against pace. The power of the home crowd played its part in Morocco’s crumble but Gernot Rohr’s change at half-time was a masterstroke.
Aubameyang moves to the right-wing, Cousin the spearhead
At half time, left-winger Stephane N’Guema was sacrificed for veteran Daniel Cousin. Aubameyang meanwhile was shunted out to the right wing, a move that proved to be a game-changer. The Gabonese star’s pace was too much for aging Moroccan left-back El Kaddouri. On several occasions he flew past him, El Kaddouri making him look like Usain Bolt and created chances for his team-mates with crosses from the byline. In a remarkable 3 minutes, spurred on by the roar of the home crowd, Gabon scored two goals. The first a stab of a volley by Aubameyang, an inspired speed daemon through the second half, the ball falling to him after a Stoke-esque throw-in routine. The second a scuffed shot on the turn by Cousin, further justifying his substitution.
I’ll miss you, Houssine
One of the few Moroccans who can go home with his head held up high is Houssine Kharja. The Morocco captain, and Samir Nasri lookalike, has been enjoyable to watch, his use of the ball intelligent, his interceptions key and his drive from midfield constant. Indeed, he has scored all three of the Morocco goals at this tournament so far. The goal in this match was a tidy finish into the bottom corner and in the Tunisia loss, after pulling a goal back, he nearly scored a late leveller.
On the 84th minute, with Gabon in the ascendancy, coach Gernot Rohr decided to shut up shop taking off Eric Mouloungui, who was standout performer at left-wing, and bringing on central midfielder Bruno Zita. As a result, Gabon lost an outlet on the left, inviting Moroccan pressure and it seemed like the wrong substitution. This pressure eventually led to a penalty to Morocco, Kharja dispatching it with ease as Gabon keeper Didier Ovono decided to stay rooted to the spot, going neither way. Ironically, it was Zita who dispatched the free-kick into the top corner, sending the crowd into raptures.