AFCON2017 Day 5 Observations

Gabon brighter than opening game but still fall short

Unlike the cumbersome start their opening game, Gabon started this game with real gusto and immediately got the crowd on their side. The inclusion of Andre Biyogo-Poko added a consistent performer to the side and Evouna playing more centrally also helped matters. They were unable to capitalise on their early start with Prejuce Nakoulma’s goal putting them on the back foot, but Gabon had some good spells in this game which they can take away as a positive. Still, the lack of a midfield controller has seen their games swing wildly in momentum – though they were not helped on this occasion by a stop-start game which saw several stoppages for injured players.

The hosts are up against it

With Cameroon winning in the later game, the hosts are now up against it. Their final group match versus the Indomitable Lions is now do-or-die, with 3 points a must to ensure smooth qualification. If they were one of the continental giants you would have some confidence that they would come through unscathed against a weakened Cameroon side, but, at this point in time, there’s not much to suggest that they can win that game, especially with Hugo Broos’ side now favourites to progress from the group.

Gabon’s performance today was better than their opening game but. as easily as they could have won the game, they could have also been on the losing side. A bigger concern is that the fact that they are hosts is counting for little at the moment. The low turn-out to their games – attributed to the public protesting against the country’s regime –  doesn’t give them the edge of the 12th man. Out of those who do turn up, they are, generally speaking, restless fans that are quick to get on their team’s back during the frustrating spells. This only heighten the chances of Gabon falling at the first hurdle. This is a contrast to five years ago when they had the blessings of their country, with their signature performance their 3-2 win over what was, on paper, a superior Morocco side.

Burkina Faso showing signs of steel

Before the tournament Paulo Duarte would have taken two draws from the first two group games, against Cameroon and hosts Gabon. An argument could be made that they are in prime position to qualify with slightly less intimidating to face in Guinea-Bissau. All Duarte’s side now need to do is guide his team to a win in the final game. That is easier said than done. As Guinea-Bissau have shown they can go toe-to-toe with opposition at this tournament and they will feel they will be able to slay a Burkina Faso which will be seeking to attack.

Burkina Faso have by no means been spectacular but we’ve seen signs of steel from them. They worked for an equaliser against Cameroon after going behind. Yacouba Coulibaly, a disaster waiting to happen in the first game, shone with his doggedness this time; Prejuce Nakoulma came on and scored; Bertrand Traore came on and caused Gabon problems; and Charles Kabore was, as usual, a sea of calm. That’s despite the potentially tournament-ending injuries to Jonathan Pitroipa and Zongo have had.

-Salim Masoud Said

Cameroon bailed out by unlikely sources

For the first hour of the match, it looked like nothing was going right for the Indomitable Lions. Guinea-Bissau’s early goal had come against the run of play, as Djurtus sat deep and counter-attacked with their pacy wingers Piqueti and Toni Silva. The four Cameroon attackers – Moukandjo, Aboubakar, Bassogog and N’Jie – cut frustrating figures as they struggled to break down the minnows, and scuffed the opportunities they were presented. It looked as if it was going to be one of those nights.

Bringing on Karl Toko for N’Jie and switching to a 3-4-3 in the second half seemed to liven things up a little, as the Angers striker assumed a left wing position and caused Guinea-Bissau right-back Tomas Dabo some headaches. But eventually it was a central midfielder, Sebastian Siani, who grabbed the initiative by smashing in the equaliser – it was only ever going to come from outside the box by that point, as Guinea-Bissau had sufficiently retreated to allow no space there.

Eventually the winner came from outside the box too, as Bassogog beat left-back Cande with some of the skills he showed in the first game and found the advancing defender Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui. Like Siani, the Slavia Prague man struck it hard beyond Jonas, the sort of power Cameroon’s attackers hadn’t found. While the playing surface can’t have been great after four games in five days, that’s no excuse for quality attackers, as Siani and Ngadeu demonstrated.

Hugo Broos doesn’t seem to have gotten a handle on his most talented players. Individually they are all beating men and finding space, but they’re not working well as a unit, and the finishing in both games has been appalling. There’s been little progress here over the last couple of years – if anything, regression, and nothing to do with the absence of the players who withdrew. It would be surprising if Cameroon were to get to the final, and even more of a shock if Broos found himself still in the job at the end of this tournament.

Guinea-Bissau scored too soon

We all loved Piqueti’s wonderful opening goal. Surely this guy has a future outside a Portuguese B team – he ran half the length of the pitch, leaving defenders stranded, before blasting past Fabrice Ondoa. But coming 13 minutes in, it was always going to be a monumental task to hold off one of Africa’s most talented teams for most of the match. It didn’t help matters when Piqueti himself was taken off just after half time, after picking up a knock in the first half.

The lead never really looked stable. Even when Cameroon weren’t firing on all cylinders, Guinea-Bissau’s defence was still leaving too much space in the box. Aboubakar’s knock-down fell to captain Moukandjo, but he fluffed his lines, while the star man, who had missed the first game, did likewise shortly after when the ball fell to him in space in the box. On another day, Cameroon may have been 2-1 or 3-1 up at half time. But this isn’t luck.

Credit to them for the effort, but they just look too limited a side at this level. Baciro Cande is extracting the absolute maximum from these players and he deserves credit for that, but without Cicero up front, they have very little cutting edge in attack and are relying on organisation at the back to snatch anything. They look like the mid-pack African side we thought they were two years ago – no great surprise, I guess. This felt like a cup tie between a lower league side and a mid-table Premier League team made up of a bunch of reserves and youth team players, and as in most cases, the quality of the big boys eventually showed through.

It’s still wide open

This was a lucky escape for Cameroon. They were staring at being bottom of the group with a game to go, relying on the other result to go their way to have a chance of progressing. Now they only need to avoid defeat to Gabon to go through – and on the basis of today’s games, that looks like a decent prospect.

Guinea-Bissau will of course need a miracle against the old stagers of Burkina Faso, who look likely to repeat their 2013 antics of drawing two group games and winning one against the group minnows to go through on 5 points. A 2- or 3-goal win for Burkina Faso may even be enough to win them the group, as it seems unlikely Gabon will thump Cameroon even if they are able to hold them back. Guinea-Bissau will need to win and hope Gabon fail to beat Cameroon.

None of these teams look like a threat to win the overall competition at the moment, but teams build slowly. As has been demonstrated in the last two AFCONs, making it through the group puts you only one win away from the semi-finals, and once you make the semi-finals you have a chance of winning the whole tournament. The 16-team tournament structure is very fickle like that. Cameroon haven’t played well, but after this comeback win they will have regained some confidence and maybe, just maybe, they’re going to start regaining the belief that they can win this.

It’ll be interesting to see how they approach the game against Gabon – will they sit back and play for the draw that’ll take them through, knowing Gabon have the best player in the competition in their team who could conjure up something in a flash, or will they go for the jugular to try and destroy the dreams of a nation? All eyes are on Hugo.

-James Bennett

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