MALIcious performance as Ghana say Boye-Boye

by James Bennett Ah, the third place play-off - football's most pointless match. Except despite having no relevant end goal, they are usually wide open affairs with lots of goals, and the 2013 Cup of Nations version was no exception. For the second year in a row, Mali grabbed a surprising but deserved victory over a strong Ghanaian side with arguably their best performance of the championship, with Seydou Keita once again leading from the front in what might just have been his last Cup of Nations match. An Eagle swoops As usual, there were plenty of changes as the teams gave run-outs to some unfamiliar squad members. Mali made 5 from their semi-final, with an all-Coulibaly centre-back pairing, Soumbeila Diakite replacing Mamadou Samassa in goal, and Cheick Diabate returning up front in place of Modibo Maiga. There was also no place for Momo Sissoko. All-in-all, only Tamboura, Diabate, Keita and winger Ousmane Coulibaly (who replaced Sissoko) returned from last year's play-off. Ghana rotated less of their side, making just 3 changes - Richard Boateng replaced John Paintsil at the back, Mohamed Awal replaced Mohammed Rabiu in midfield, and winger Solomon Asante replaced Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, meaning Kwadwo Asamoah played in another different position, in the middle with Awal. Asamoah and defender Isaac Vorsah were the only Black Stars retained from last year's play-off.

It was a fairly even first half, with both sides creating plenty of good chances amidst the heavy rain. While Asamoah Gyan missed his usual fair share of chances at one end, Mamadou Samassa (the forward) did at least convert one of his three chances. After firing the first straight at Dauda after 10 minutes, he met Tamboura’s 21st-minute cross from the left with a glorious diving header to beat the Ghanian ‘keeper. 1-0, and it was going the same way as last year thus far.

Ghana looked to hit back immediately but failed to do so. Asamoah volley into the side netting after a corner broke to him, while Salif Coulibaly was forced to scramble to deny Awal a chance, before Diakite was forced into a save from Wakaso. But after this 10 minute wave of pressure, it was Mali who emerged on the front foot as half time approached. Samassa was looking a real threat once again, hitting the post after dinking the ball over the on-rushing Dauda, while Keita volleyed wide. It was just about enough for Mali to go in with a lead they could claim was justified.

Ghana waste more chances while Mali take theirs

Almost immediately after the break, Ghana paid for not converting their pressure into an equaliser as Mali doubled their lead. Good work from Ousmane Coulibaly down the right bought him a great position. He pulled it back for the captain, who slid the ball under Dauda for his third goal of the tournament, a total which reflects his importance to the team.

Ghana once again looked to respond quickly, with Atsu blasting over. Shortly after, they got a big chance to haul themselves back into it. Salif Coulibaly was harshly judged to have handled in the area, and the ever-reliable Wakaso was entrusted with the penalty. But the tournament’s joint-top scorer could only blast it over the bar in a manner David Akers or Jonny Wilkinson would have been proud of. Following this, there were more half-chances – a Gyan free-kick was expertly saved by Diakite, who then appeared to be more of a novice when fumbling a high ball under pressure. But Mali had further chances to clinch victory, with Keita at the centre of proceedings – a deceptive free-kick from the right flank was on target before Dauda tipped it over, and he soon found the net again as Diabate flicked it into his path inside the box, only for the assistant referee’s flag to go straight up.

Then, out of nothing, Ghana were back in the game. A speculative long-range effort from Asamoah deceived the increasingly edgy Diakite, who could only palm it over himself into the net. The Black Stars were now only an equaliser from a penalty shootout and piled on the pressure with a series of corners. There were vociferous penalty appeals when Asante hit the turf as the clock ticked over the 90 minute mark, but referee Otogo-Castane’s only action was to book the winger for diving.

In the end, Ghana committed too many forward and were hit on the counter. In the fourth minute of added time, a high ball lofted over the top was missed by a group of players in the box, falling kindly for substitute Sigamary Diarra who lashed in his first international goal to seal another bronze medal for Mali.

It was a deserved win for the Eagles, who took their chances well despite few periods of sustained pressure, and dealt with the majority of what Ghana threw at them. They may not have been the most attractive of sides to watch in this tournament but if they play as they did in this game in the remaining World Cup qualifiers, they have every chance of beating Benin and Algeria in Group H. As for Ghana, it was another timid performance from a team that through the tournament relied a lot on penalties once again. Despite a breakthrough tournament for Wakaso and Atsu, they seem to be missing the attacking dynamism of the likes of Kevin-Prince Boateng and the Ayew brothers, as well as the steel and experience of Essien and Muntari. They remain the African side with the most depth but their best side still lacks the quality necessary to win an Africa Cup of Nations.

Man of the Match: Seydou Keita

Ghana could really have done with a Seydou Keita in this tournament – an experienced player to drive the team forward and pop up in the right place at the right time. I covered Mali’s first match against Niger when he scored the winner and named him Man of the Match in that one too – he was every bit as good in this one. They will really miss him if he retires from international football – I hope he sticks around at least for the World Cup qualifiers, as they have a good chance of making it with him but would be a pretty average team without him.

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