Easier said than done
The second half began as exciting, if not more, than the first, with Adomah forcing Kidiaba to a save just a couple of minutes in. At the 49th, Wakaso Mubarak with a corner and Kwadwo Asamoah with a strong downward header at the far post beat the Congolese keeper to make it 2-0 and secure some security for Ghana, or so they thought.
Just four minutes later, a superb play from Cédric Makiadi, who gives the ball to skipper Trésor Mputu and with a classy finish gives DR Congo its first goal in an AFCON since 2006 and relaunches the match.
Ghana’s defense reacted badly to the goal, showing weaknesses once more on a couple of occasions, culminating with Jerry Akaminko tugging the shirt of Dieumerci Mbokani and referee Daniel Bennett signalling for a penalty. Mbokani himself converted the kick, igniting the Congolese fans’ spirits and giving Kidiaba an excuse to make his famous bottom-bouncing celebration.
Afterwards, the game became open, with both keepers having to work hard to keep the score equalized. DR Congo had a couple of scares near the end of the match, first with Kidiaba landing awkwardly after a brilliant save from a freekick, a consequence of his bad positioning, and in the final minute of the game, Gyan had a brilliant header, saved by DR Congo’s Mr.T just before it crossed the line.
Man of the match: Trésor Mputu
The 27-year-old TP Mazembe man showed why he is one of Africa’s best players, commanding DR Congo’s offensive manoeuvres and demonstrating exactly why the Leopards are the dark horses of this competition, culminating in a wonderfully executed goal.
MALI VS NIGER
It’s fair to say that this wasn’t the glamour tie of the day. Much of the talk before and during the game centred around which versions of the names of the Nigerien players was acceptable (Wikipedia won for this report) rather than the action. But eventually after a(nother) staccato start, it developed into a tense conclusion, both sides have good chances to win it. Inevitably, it was the best player on the pitch who decided his side’s opener once again.
A slow start
The opening exchanges in the first half were as expected. Mali, whose attack was led by Bordeaux’s Cheick Diabate and supported by the two Diarras on the flanks (Sigamary on the right and Cheick Fantamady on the left), looked the more dangerous. Niger banked on counter-attacking, and did get the occasional chance. But it looked more likely that a goal would come from a goalkeeping error, as both Niger’s Kassaly Daouda and Mali’s Mamadou Samassa optimistically lunged Superman-style at corners, only to completely miss them.
The match became increasingly bitty and disjointed as the physicality of the game led to a few stoppages and free kicks. The main half-chances fell to the favourites, particularly both Diarras, but Niger were holding firm, forcing Les Aigles to shoot from distance or tight angles – they had Diabate under control, which was enough to shut them down for now due to the absence of usual strike partner Modibo Maiga of West Ham. With half time arriving, it seemed like another 0-0 draw might be on the cards.
Mali step it up in the second half
Mali coach Patrice Carteron decided to shake up his attacking options at half time with Rennes’ Fantamady Diarra making way for Mamadou Samassa (the other one) of Chievo. He nearly made an immediate impact, shooting wide just 5 minutes into the half. Moments later, captain Seydou Keita forced a fine save from Daouda with his speciality, a beautifully-placed effort from just outside the box, as Mali stepped up the pressure on the underdogs. But they continued to hold firm, and forced a scramble from keeper Samassa after Kalilou Traore gave the ball away to Niger striker Modibo Sidibe in midfield, leading to a rapid counter-attack.
It was becoming clear that Niger would need an error like that to snatch a goal, while Mali continued to pressurise their defence. Samassa again threatened with a jinking run inside, only to ripple the net from the wrong side. At the other end, Niger’s captain and talisman Moussa Maazou, so long isolated on the wing, got a free header in the box from a corner, only to see it fly over the bar – a reminder for Mali that they had not sealed this.
It was a warning that only Keita seemed to heed, though. The former Barcelona man tried another long-ranger, this time hitting the bar with Daouda well-beaten. Mahamane Traore was next to come close, heading over from the edge of the 6-yard box while Diabate was in a great position just behind. But it was looking like wastefulness could cost them, not least when Maazou found himself free in the box with the ball at his feet. However, the Etoile du Sahel striker would scuff his shot into the ground and it landed easily in the arms of Samassa. It would be their biggest chance. Moments later he would be ruing it even more.
A goalkeeping error decides it
It was now the 83rd minute. Mali had pushed Niger back into their penalty area once again. Diabate had a shot blocked on the left side box, before it found its way to the right flank. The cross should have been easy for Daouda to deal with. But he was under pressure, and the shakiness he had demonstrated earlier in the came returned. He fumbled, and unfortunately for him, he fumbled it straight to Keita, who slipped it between the lunges of the Niger defenders into the unguarded net. Another crucial late goal by Keita, who also scored the equaliser in the famous 4-4 opener against Angola in 2010.
So heartbreak for Niger, who couldn’t muster anything in the remaining minutes. They had defended well for 83 minutes, but as had been hinted earlier, a goalkeeping error ultimately cost them their first Cup of Nations point. But on chances created, Mali deserved the win, even if they didn’t show much attacking fortitude until the second half. While on the basis of this showing they may struggle to qualify for the quarter-finals, let alone challenge for the title, we have seen how teams develop over tournaments as the pressure increaese – if they can be more clinical going forward, they could progress. For Niger, it looks bleak – defensively strong, but they created very little and wasted the good chances that they had. It’s difficult to see where they can pick up points from here – their best chance theoretically comes next against DR Congo, but they looked impressive today.
Man of the Match: Seydou Keita
With Diabate misfiring and the Diarras creating little from the flanks, it was up to Mali’s most decorated player to drive the team on from an increasingly-advanced role. He single-handedly created the team’s two best chances – his own long-range efforts – before eventually scoring the winner. Mali’s chances of getting out of the group look increasingly likely to be resting on the Dalian Aerbin midfielder’s shoulders, but he also has a wise old head on those shoulders.