Msakni leaves it late as Tunisia leapfrog Elephants Togo top

IVORY COAST VS TOGO No one liked it - they don't care. The favourites opened their 2013 Cup of Nations account with what appears on the surface to be a routine win over Togo, but was actually anything but. Some of the big name Elephants looked rusty and they were outplayed the hard-working Sparrow Hawks for much of the game, but ultimately the quality, as it often does, shone through. Ivorians pegged back as Togo dominate the first half Both sides set up with different versions of 4-5-1 - whereas Ivory Coast had Zokora (the former Spurs midfielder laughably wearing "Maestro" on the back of his shirt) sitting deep allowing Yaya Toure and in particular Didier Ya Konan to push on and join the attack, Togo were effectively a 5-4-1 when defending, with Serge Akakpe, playing in his first Cup of Nations match since being injured in the bus shooting of 2010, moving forward to join the midfield when counter-attacking. Surprisingly, despite these quite defensive formations, the first few minutes were action-packed, starting with an early chance for Togo. An air kick from Kolo Toure allowed former Arsenal and Man City team mate Adebayor in on goal, but Boubacar Barry proved as reliable as ever and palmed it away. Togo will be kicking themselves in hindsight, as minutes later, Gervinho eventually bounced a pass off a Togo defender to Yaya, who doesn't miss when he has a sight of goal in the box. 1-0 to the Ivorians - straight forward so far.

From then on, it was pretty much one way traffic, but not in the way you would expect. Togo maintained pressure on a stuttering Ivorian back line for much of the half, although they fashioned few opportunities for themselves. Serge Gakpe and Jonathan Ayite looked threatening on the flanks, particularly the former whose pace was frightening the experienced defenders, while Adebayor was making Kolo Toure look like an amateur. You wouldn’t think they were the relatively unknown underdogs.

Just before half time, Ivory Coast managed to get forward at once. They won a corner amidst penalty appeals after Drogba was nudged over while taking a shot, and from the resulting corner move, Yaya lashed a volley off the post. But this was pretty much their only post-goal chance of the half, and they were punished for their unadventurous play in stoppage time. A corner from the right for Togo was easily swept in by Ayite, the Ivorians getting their marking all wrong. 1-1 at half time and on balance Togo deserved to be level after a scrappy, physical half.

Talent defeats grit in the end

Ivory Coast continued to look blunt in attack for much of the second half. Agassa’s save to deny Ya Konan was the best chance in a scrappy third quarter. As a result, they rang the changes, first bringing on Salomon “Kalounho” Kalou (another daft shirt name) on 59 minutes. But this substitution caused controversy, and no doubt more post-match hindsight frustration for Togo – Kalou arrived as the Togolese were about take a corner, and it was quickly whipped in and headed in by centre-back Nibombe. But referee Alioum immediately blew up, and forced a re-take – too quick for his liking, even though all the players in the box were ready.

Another big name soon appeared as Cheick Tiote arrived in place of Ya Konan, but they still looked poor. Drogba was getting no service at all, marked out of the game by the Togolese defence. Eventually, Sabri Lamouchi decided to remove his captain from the fray, bringing on the in-form Wilfried Bony in his place. Bony made an immediate impact, running at a weary-looking defence. It seemed like the Ivorians were now playing with a lot more freedom without the big man to lump it up to.

At the other end, Togo looked to be fading going forward, with the rapid Gakpe replaced by Floyd Ayite, who was lively but not as much of a threat. They weren’t quite able to sustain the level of pressure of the first half, and lacked creative spark – Adebayor, who had made a nuisance of himself off the ball, was now stymied like his own defence had seen off Drogba.

In the end, one of the many fouls they had conceded led to their downfall. A free kick from the right flank was curled in by Yaya. Agassa, usually one of the more reliable African goalkeepers, flapped at it. Gervinho pounced. Blushes had seemingly been saved.

But it nearly wasn’t the winner. Togo threw on former Aston Villa attacking midfielder Moustapha Salifou to add bodies to their attack, and it nearly paid off in the 3rd minute of stoppage time. Adebayor brilliantly scooped the ball over the Ivorian defence and Floyd Ayite dived to head it goalwards, but Barry, as he had in the first minute, was there to palm it away, and Djene’s rebound was similarly saved. The resulting corner was easily defended and Togo ran out of time.

In the end, Ivory Coast could bank on their talent even if they haven’t formed as a cohesive unit just yet. Togo, for all their effort, didn’t create enough chances in the second half, although they will be disappointed with the disallowed goal. It was always going to be a tough group for them, and they have at least shown Algeria and Tunisia that they will be no pushovers, but that may have been their big chance for some points.

Man of the Match: Yaya Toure

This shouldn’t be a massive surprise as he is, at the moment, the most talented player in the tournament. But this was a welcome return to form for an out-of-form Yaya, who looked like the only Ivorian player capable of scoring for much of the match. He took his goal well, nearly got another just before half time, and had a good chance in the second half before delivering the free kick that decided the match. He summed up his team’s performance today – could have done more, but did enough, and that’s what counts.

Video Highlights

ALGERIA 0-1 TUNISIA

Starting Line-ups

Football can be quite cruel. When Vahid set-up his carefully measured 4-3-2-1, and it was flawlessly executed, he couldn’t have imagined losing.

Algeria set-up to neutralize Tunisia’s biggest threat: wing-play. They opted for a 4-3-2-1, in which the 2 peripheral defensive midfielders would double up on Khelifa and Msakni. The tactic worked to a tee, as the Algerian midfield industriously won possession and supplied their own wingers who tried to construct their own attacking dynamic.

Foued Kadir had the brunt of the chances, constantly haunting the out-of-position Bilel Ifa. First, he cut onto his left and whipped in a teasing cross that Ben Cherifia gobbled up. Then he juked right and tried a tame shot to no effect. The last of his trifecta of chances came when Feghouli pipped the ball from Hichri, but Kadir completely mishit it.

Trabelsi introduced Oussama Darragi at the pause, and one could immediately feel a palpable difference. Darragi wasn’t fazed by the harrying of Lacen and Mostefa and he used his dribbling ability to open space up for his fellow forwards. In the 75th minute, Darragi capitalized on a Medjani error to free Harbaoui who shamefully missed the target with his left-footed strike.

Yet Algeria remained on the front foot. Mesbah embarked on one of his trademark runs and capped it with a fizzing shot that skipped just wide. Guedioura also reached into his repertoire and smacked a familiar 30 yard shot a few inches above Ben Cherifia’s crossbar. But the Fennecs’ best chance came in the 87th minute, when a seemingly innocuous corner kick fell to the excellent Medhi Lacen. Lacen teed it up and after a few ricochets, and via the effects of a sadistically deceiving camera angle; the ball had appeared to nestle into Ben Cherifia’s not. Alas, it had evaded the right side of the goalpost and made its way wide.

And Algeria were made to pay for their impotency. Youssef Msakni gathered the ball for what was the umpteenth time in the match. This particular action was the first time I wasn’t worried when Msakni had the ball in Algeria’s half. It was the 91st minute and coach Vahid had just introduced a fresh defensive midfielder. Msakni had found himself in this position all game and we were yet to see the fruit of his travails. But it’s the Tunisian’s ability to take the mundane and produce the spectacular which makes him a player of the highest quality. Msakni wrong-footed Khaled Lemmouchia before sumptuously curling in a long-range effort. Rais M’Bolhi had no chance.

Man of the Match: Medhi Lacen

Youssef Msakni was decisive but it would be incredibly unfair to overlook Lacen who did not put a foot wrong all game. His passing was pinpoint, his work ethic was unfalsifiable, and his leadership was invaluable to Les Fennecs whose inexperience finally came to the fore and cost them.

Video Highlights

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