by Sam Crockett and Joe Kennedy
Mali 1 – 1 DR Congo
Needing a draw and a win respectively, Mali gave a sturdy defensive performance to shut out the game against the team that many were calling dark horses before the tournament, as DR Congo finished in third place behind their opponents in group B.
With a start more exciting than the first corner of an F1 race, people who undoubtedly expecting big things from this match, as DR Congo asserted their dominance right from the start. Lua Lua struck the post after just 20 seconds cutting in on his right foot, before Diba was felled by Sissoko as he brought the ball back into the box, as DRC were awarded a penalty before most of the crown had even sat down. Mbokani stepped up, side-footing it wonderfully into the top corner of the goal in what was an excellent penalty, giving The Leopards the lead within the first minute.
However, it may have turned out to be not quite as good as first thought, as theories around scoring “too early” were floated by the commentators, as Mali looked to even things up. After Sissoko warmed up Kidiaba’s gloves a few minutes later, nice build up place by Mali saw roaming full-back Tamboura get to the byline, as he pulled it back to Mamadou Samassa to slot in to level things up.
With Mali being able to get away with a draw in order to qualify, they didn’t make too much effort to get a second goal, allowing DR Congo the possession for most of the first half. They were extremely unproductive with it however, as Keita and Mulumbu faced-off against one another in the middle of the park as the first half became very bogged down in midfield. Mali looked dangerous on the break, with Samassa impressing far more than the rather lazy Diabate had in the previous games, whilst the clocked ticked on to 45 minutes with the score remaining 1-1.
Second half, same rhythm
The second half seemed to signal a change in the DR Congo, as Tresor Mputu’s introduction for veteran Lua Lua gave them a previously unseen spark, as he dictated in the play from the centre of the pitch. Mali didn’t sit back though. Unlike their Moroccan counterparts yesterday, they didn’t put all their eggs in one basket and play out for the draw, maintaining a reasonable amount of attacking play and being smart about their situation, trying to keep possession rather than just lump it up the other end of the pitch. Mbokani was keen to get his head on everything that came his way for DR Congo, but lack of movement in the box for him to head onto meant that his efforts were largely irrelevant.
Keepers had to be alert though. A Mamadou Samassa snap-shot from the edge of the area almost led to Kidiaba fumbling it into his own goal, whilst a shot from the normally offensively impotent Mulumbu forced a good save out of the Mali keeper low to his left. Various penalty appeals were turned down for DR Congo, as Mali continued to just keep possession and take the sting out of the game – striking the perfect balance between defensive consciousness and a retaining possession at the other end of the pitch.
The game petered out in the end, with Mali actually having the better of the chances, as substitute Diabate and Keita both coming close. The 1-1 draw means that Mali go through just behind Ghana in the group, with DRC no doubtedly feeling hard done by at going out despite not losing a game.
It’s a real shame for DR Congo. The “hipster” choice of many to win the tournament, their lack of goals from open play seemed to be the death of them, despite being a fairly attractive team to watch. I feel like they would have really kicked on had they qualified for the next round, perhaps making history by winning their first tournament under their current name, but it wasn’t to be.
Mali should be proud of their defensive performance, as they really showed how a team should close out a game, remaining rock-solid at the back. The neutral will be disappointed at them going through, as they are certainly not the most attractive team to watch, and their lack of inspiration going forwards means I can’t really see them getting very far. Ghana showed that against quality opposition they are found out, so I don’t think the pleasure will last too much longer for Mali.
GHANA 3-0 NIGER
Sitting atop the group with a game to play, the brief was simple for Ghana; a point would secure progression whilst a win would seal top spot, setting up a quarter final date with Cape Verde. Niger – goalless in the tournament thus far – needed a miracle; not only were they required to overcome the Black Stars, but they were reliant upon Mali beating DR Congo. They were all out of luck.
With nothing less than a win satisfying Niger, they looked forward from the off. Approaching the game with an attacking 4-3-3 the Nigeriens looked the better of the sides in the game’s infancy, but their focus on going forward left them vulnerable at the back and with chilling efficiency, Asamoah Gyan pounced. The Ghanaian captain’s first touch tamed a low, skidding cross from Adomah, his second sent a ruthless bullet of a shot across the goal and into the bottom left corner.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the goal put an end to any Nigerien hope, but the Gazelle’s reacted positively. Ghana seemed content standing off, conceding possession in the higher areas of the field and waiting only until the ball was brought well into their half before applying any real pressure. Niger appeared particularly strong down the left, with star man Maazou providing an important outlet in crowded areas.
The sustained spells of pressure culminated in the dubious disallowance of a Nigerien goal. Ghanaian keeper, Dauda came flapping at a corner only to collide with teammate, John Boye, Dankwa headed home but he was incorrectly penalized, having been adjudged to have made the foul himself. Perhaps a sense of injustice crept into the Nigerien mind-set as some of the belief started to slip.
Ghana soon began gaining some of the fluency that they’d previously lacked. Christian Atsu – making a bursting run from the left side of midfield – picked out his captain Gyan before continuing his intelligent diagonal run into the box. Gyan made no mistake, placing an inch-perfect cross back onto Atsu’s chest. The youngster diligently brought the ball down and prodded into that bottom left corner once more, doubling the Black Stars’ lead.
Two goals down, all faith seemed to dissipate from the Nigeriens, they muddled through to half-time without conceding a third but it took just over three minutes after the break until John Boye put the result beyond any doubt, tapping in loose ball from one of several Ghanaian free-kicks in the final third. The latter stages of the game descended into little more than kick around; the Nigeriens already willing themselves onto a plane home with the Ghanaians resting legs ahead of their upcoming quarter final.
The best is yet to come?
It was an odd performance from Ghana. Despite embers of genius, there was a general lack of urgency in their build up play which led to them failing to maintain any real sustained pressure when the game still mattered. This didn’t appear to be a motivational problem so much as a tactical instruction. Perhaps James Appiah sent his side out to play in this stand-offish manner so as not to over-work his players, to force the seemingly susceptible defence to work together and to exploit his forwards’ counter attacking abilities. If that were the case, with a 3-0 win perhaps he’s been vindicated. However, the defensive frailties still clearly remain and if the Black Stars are to play to their strengths in games to come, they’ll be defending from the front, making today’s exercise in sitting deep little more than an attempted – and arguably failed – confidence booster.
In Cape Verde, Ghana have quarter final opponents that they’ll feel they should beat. Last year’s competition showed the importance of not underestimating anyone at this crucial stage and the Black Stars would do well to remember that lesson. Whilst the path to the semi’s is set out for them, they’ll need to improve at the back whilst displaying that same lethality going forward if they are go much further in the competition.
Man of the Match: Asamoah Gyan
His cool finish in the opening minutes calmed any nerves set about the Ghanaian’s by their slow start and his ball to Atsu for the second helped kill any chance of a Nigerien fight back. Perhaps he should have added to his tally in the second half but for his true captain’s performance in the first he was very much deserving of the award.