AFCON2017 Day 1 Observations

Gabon pay for a lacklustre performance

It’s fair to say that the Panthers, apart the brief spell in the second half which led to the opening goal, didn’t look at home. Perhaps the nerves got the better of them, or perhaps the system didn’t quite work for them. It was probably a mixture of both. They’re a team that has typically functioned at its optimum when playing a counter-attacking game and looked awkward when they’ve had to be proactive.

Malick Evouna, more accustomed to playing centrally with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, cut an awkward figure on the right wing, Didier N’Dong’s passing was off-the-radar and nerves got the better of Juventus’ Mario Lemina for much of the game before he was substituted. The only player who looked truly primed for the occasion for Gabon was winger Denis Bouanga, who was direct and assisted Aubameyang’s goal. With boos ringing out at full time, Bouanga was the only Gabonese player that could walk away proud of  his performance.

Zezinho rises to the occasion

The de facto captain Bocundj Ca was surprisingly named on the bench, and the armband went to Zezinho, the next most experienced player in the squad. The 25-year-old had been named in SFG’s pre-tournament ‘7 midfielders to watch’ and, after a first half where there were glimpses of his skill, he more than lived up to the billing in the second half as he and Guinea-Bissau grew into the game.

With the lively Piquite and the lanky Frederic Mendy brought on, and Toni Silva already showing flashes on the right wing, the forward line that tormented Zambia was regrouped. Consequently, the momentum was overturned and it stayed with Guinea-Bissau until the end of the game. After Mendy missed a great chance to equalise from a Zezinho cross, reminiscent to the goal he scored against Zambia in the AFCON 2017 qualifiers, it was Juary who would get on the end of Zezinho’s free-kick to get the deserved equaliser.

Guinea-Bissau showed they had the ability to compete at this level. And if Zezinho continues to play well, and defend well, there’s a chance they can walk away from the tournament with their heads held high.

It’s too soon to rule Gabon out but there are issues

The history of major tournaments is filled with host nations which have punched well above their weight. Gabon are one of Africa’s middleweight teams and there’s no reason why they can’t make a run to the semi-finals; worser teams have.The immediate task is to win their next game and, with that, win their fans back.

As stated in the pre-tournament overview, not winning the first game, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t equate to exiting the tournament. If you look at recent history it’ll suggest that it’s a good omen in fact – for the major nations at least. Gabon are not one of those major nations and their haphazard preparation for this tournament means they have some tactical issues to resolve within the tournament if they are to better their 2012 quarter-final best.

Cameroon and Burkina Faso fail to take advantage of opposition’s defence

Producing some highly entertaining attacking football, neither Burkina Faso nor Cameroon managed to exploit the clear chinks in the other side’s armoury to take the game by the scruff of the neck, resulting in the points being shared by the end of the game.

Cameroon proved to be especially guilty of this, fluffing their lines on multiple occasions in front of goal, despite some excellent cohesive and free-flowing football to get them into such positions. Christian Bassogog got himself into good positions on several occasions, though definitely had the more challenging of opportunities, with some incredible Manuel Neuer-esque work from Burkinabe goalkeeper Herve Koffi outside his area preventing him from taking aim at an open goal. Clinton N’Jie will take much of the blame, however, for the Indomitable Lions missing this opportunity, as he spurned an chance in front of a gaping net by choosing to go with his left not his right. At the other end, Burkina Faso took advantage of Cameroon’s lack of organisation at set pieces, with centre-back Bakary Kone most guilty of being wasteful.

Their defensive instability means you would have to fear for these sides going forward to the latter stages of the tournament. Should Burkina Faso meet a side capable of taking their chances or Cameroon meet a side with more cutting edge, it would be difficult to imagine either side coming out with anything.  

Cameroon surprise everyone

‘A ramshackle bunch of nobodies’ was the prevailing feeling ahead of this match, with Hugo Broos’ line-up featuring players that were largely unfamiliar, as the impact of the dropouts of big names really became highlighted. With a defence that featured players from MSK Zilina, Slavia Prague, Sochaux and Montreal Impact, a midfield containing yet more average defensive midfielders and a frontline with seven international goals between them (six from a single player, it didn’t spark much hope).

But in the first half they were superb. Georges Mandjeck and Sebastien Siani were tenacious and snarling, dominating Abdou Razack Traore and the very experienced Charles Kabore in the centre of the park, consistently winning the ball back to enable attacks to take place. Meanwhile, the forward line-up looked like they had played together for years. Bassogog and N’Jie terrorised their respective fullbacks and Jacques Zoua put in a sublime performance through the middle, with Benjamin Moukandjo supporting them from behind. Flowing forward like a gushing river, they did everything right to put themselves in position to kill the game off, but sadly did not have the composure to do so.

Two young goalkeepers provide a lot of hope

Not traditionally a position that Africa necessarily excels in, Fabrice Ondoa and Herve Koffi in the Cameroonian and Burkinabe goals respectively put in performances that transcended stereotypes, producing assured and calm performances that will give their countries great hope going into the tournament.

Whilst Ondoa was a known quantity following an impressive display in 2015, the same could not necessarily be said of Herve Koffi. Making only his fourth appearance for his country, he was following in the footsteps of great African goalkeepers Aboulaye Soulama and Daouda Diakite, who had both proved to be loyal glove-wearers in their time for Burkina Faso. Demonstrating immense maturity and calmness between the sticks, he showed his ability to claim crosses, make instinctive saves and concentrate on the simple saves, acting as a very assured presence behind his rickety defence. His Manuel Neuer moment was particularly memorable, as he rushed out from his goal as the last defender to make a perfectly timed sliding tackle on Christian Bassogog, in an event that will surely go down as a highlight of the tournament already. Ondoa meanwhile remained as he always is, remaining excellent at shot stopping and rushing off his line in an all-action performance.

Oddly enough, they were both to an extent at fault for the goals, despite excellent performances. Ondoa should have definitely done better than his weak parry of Diawara’s powerful freekick, allowing Issofou Dayo to nod in, whilst Koffi’s positioning for Moukandjo’s freekick could have been better. Nevertheless, it should not ruin what is an exciting time in both these goalkeepers’ careers.


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