Finals, and football matches in general, between evenly matched teams are often decided by the tiniest of margins. Salim Masoud Said profiles the direct and indirect key battles which could decide Ghana versus Ivory Coast on Sunday night.
Ivory Coast back three versus Kwesi Appiah/Asamoah Gyan
The rebrand of Ivory Coast to a 5-2-3 formation has been one of the stories of the tournament. Kolo Toure, living up to his sobriquet of “Minister of Defence” by showcasing soothing solidity throughout the tournament, has literally taken and led two callow centre-backs either side of him by the hand. Dutch-based Wilfried Kanon, steady but unspectacular, has been the consistent, proverbial 7/10 player, while Villarreal-bound Eric Bertrand Bailly has simultaneously shown remarkable maturity and a rawness to his game, chiefly in dealing with the high ball, that makes him far from the complete article.
The trio were ruffled most when a dynamic Algeria attack decided to sacrifice an intricate approach for a direct, long-ball approach, and a DR Congo team which went Route 1 in the semi-final, with a front two of Dieumerci Mbokani and Jeremy Bokila particularly troubling Bailly in the air.
The man most capable of causing them aerial panic on Sunday night is Asamoan Gyan, but doubts still linger about the Ghana captain’s fitness after Naby Yattara Harald Schumachered him in the quarter final. And even if he, or Kwesi Appiah, starts, having two in attack or at least scoring first, is Ghana’s best bet of untangling the back three.
Serge Aurier versus Baba Rahman
The sky is the limit for these two fledging yet fearless freewheeling full backs, and in today’s final two of Africa’s hottest prospects will face-off down the same flank for the first time.
Aurier had a poor start to the tournament as the right wing back in Ivory Coast’s 5-3-2 system, chesting the ball down for Mohamed Yattara to give Guinea the lead in the opening game, and then failing to track back Bakary Sako for his goal in the following game.
Those two pieces of poor defendin made the Elephants’ opening two games arduous as both Guinea and Mali retreated to protect their lead, and it prompted Renard to caution Aurier about his defensive dignity. The PSG right-back would be instructed to play a restrained role in the contest against Cameroon to curtail the forays of Henri Bedimo from left back, and Aurier answered his critic with typical doggedness as ultra-attacking Bedimo barely had a whiff.
Although Rahman himself offers an attacking threat, Aurier’s attacking venom and unending energy over 90 minutes, as well as the timely efficiency and graft of Max Gradel and, when they switch flanks, the ghostly runs and trickery of Gervinho to contend with, Rahman should expect a tough time and will also need team-mates near him to be vigilant.
Serey Die and Yaya Toure versus Mubarak Wakaso and Afriyie Acquah
Serey Die’s motto, he mused last year, is: “I shut my mouth and I work.” And my oh my he was worked hard during this tournament. He has disrupted the rhythm of opponents with persistent fouling, picking out the sort of passes that your default African defensive midfielder just doesn’t see, and covered the yards for an unquestionable unfit midfield partner in the form of Yaya Toure.
Indeed, asked to play more of a holding role, the Man City man has received severe criticism for his lethargy during this tournament, yet, for what it’s worth, he has completed more passes than anyone at this AFCON. In the semi-final versus DR Congo, the thumping net-buster to open the scoring and a handful of sublime passes over the 90 minutes indicated he may not be far off his optimum best.
Wakaso and Acquah have been the two trusted foot soldiers at the heart of Ghana’s productive performances, and they will need to be at their very best once more to stop Die and, most crucially, Toure influencing midfield.
Acquah has been the water carrier while Wakaso, the more attack-minded of the two, has been the one committing changes and breaking forward from deep, but it’s fair to say that the Ghanaian midfield pivot hasn’t been great at retaining the ball during this tournament.
If Wakaso can supply the sort of pass that released Asamoah Gyan for his injury-time winner versus Algeria, however, he will certainly not receive any complains for the average passing statistics recorded thus far. The Celtic midfielder’s set-piece delivery could also come in handy.
Sylvain Gbohouo versus Razak Brimah
The two goalkeepers were drafted in as the number 1’s midway through qualifying so didn’t exactly come into the tournament as undisputed starters. Although they’re not playing at the very high level, with Gbohouo at Sewe Sport (though he will be off to Congolese giants TP Mazembe after the tournament) and Brimah at CD Mirandes in the Spanish Segunda, they have been good value so far despite some suspect moments.
Tight clashes such as these can come down to the team that makes that one mistake. Neither goalkeeper is a match-winner on their own, but it’s not far-fetched to say both are potentially match-losers. Neither has played in a match of this magnitude and you do wonder whether one of them will finally breakdown. Gbohouo certainly did in the African Confederations Cup final last year when, with the game deep into injury time, his inability to gather a ball into the box saw Al Ahly score a dramatic late winner to win Africa’s equivalent of the Europa League.