AFCON2017 Day 6 Observations

Mathlouthi, Ben Youssef and Maaloul shine in defence

The best part of Tunisia’s win was the performance of their backline. Goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi led from the back and made some good saves in the first half. The two full-backs, Ali Maaloul and Hamdi Nagguez, were solid in their defensive duties and picked their moments to get forward well; the latter’s cross nearly found the head of Ahmed Akaichi in the first half. Aymen Abdennour and Slimani was a duel that lasted the entirety of the match and though the Leicester striker was Algeria’s sharpest attacker on the day, Abdennour’s tussle with him didn’t see him have things his own way.

The most impressive performance of all came from Abdennour’s centre-back partner Syam Ben Youssef. The former Leyton Orient defender was decisive in his interventions and none of the Algerian attackers got any joy out of him. The protectors of their defence, Ferjani Sassi and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, who was probably the unofficial Man of the Match, were just as impressive and pivotal to the game. Sassi’s lovely ball for Msakni resulted in Aissa Mandi’s own goal and Ben Amor’s return resulted in a more balanced midfield with more bite than we saw against Senegal.

Algeria will be wondering how they lost the game

Georges Leekens’ side shaded the first half on the basis of having created slightly better chances in what was a surprisingly open-ended game. They will be wondering how they lost this game. They faced a Tunisia side that they didn’t have to push to the brim; the Carthage Eagles didn’t have to play anywhere near their optimum levels to walk away with this victory. The nature of the goals was unfortunate, with both goals arising through individual errors. Algeria’s lack of urgency, though curtailed by Henryk Kasperczak’s move to switch to a back three in the 73rd minute, didn’t suggest that there was a gulf in quality between the two sides, as many had presumed.

The tournament is nearly over for Algeria

Algeria’s tournament hopes now hang by a thread – which is bitterly disappointing for them given they were supposed to go into the final game with qualification done and dusted, or at least in a good position to get the job done, not to mention a friendly-looking run to the semi final. That next group game against Senegal is now a must-win, and not just that – they have to rely on Tunisia to lose and, if that happens, for Zimbabwe not to better their scoreline by more than one goal. That’s just a small dip into the permutations but Algeria’s fate is considerably out of their control. If Zimbabwe didn’t fade later in the second half of the first game, we would have been writing their tournament obituary already.

Senegal deliver the best team performance

Before today, the best team performance so far was probably the first 45 minutes by Morocco in their bizarre defeat to DR Congo. Senegal changed that tonight with their impressive 2-0 win over Zimbabwe. Perhaps the only criticism that can be levelled towards the Teranga Lions is they weren’t ruthless enough in front of goal, with Mame Diouf and Keita Balde wasteful, but this display has propelled them into the leading pack of favourites.

Sadio Mane and Keita Bade have been giving defences the run-around during qualifiers, and they did what they have been doing to parts of the continent to The Warriors with their directness. The full-backs Lamine Gassama and Cheikh M’Bengue provided width high up at every opportunity, better than any full-backs have during the tournament. Inside them Kara Mbodj and Kalidou Koulibaly were just as solid, limiting any opportunities when Zimbabwe got near the goal and keeping their star man Khama Billiat quiet.

It was undoubtedly the most complete performance we’ve seen during this tournament up to this point, and most of the praise must go to Idrissa Gueye and captain Cheikhou Kouyate in midfield.

Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate display their credentials

We have seen them over the last few years delivering intense performances for their club sides, and it was now all on show in a Senegal shirt. Zimbabwean players almost didn’t dare to attack through the centre as anything in that area was absorbed by the tireless duo, either through interceptions or tackles. In the few times they were bypassed, Gueye and Kouyate still tracked back and aimed to retrieve the ball. They were comfortable with the ball at their feet, too – Senegal had the lion’s share of the possession, circa 60%, which provided the platform for what was a comfortable victory.

Senegal now have a good opportunity to go all the way

It’s a shame the match against Algeria is now a dead-rubber for Senegal, as it would have been another litmus test as to their standard. Out of the contenders, or even just teams remaining in the tournament, only Ivory Coast and Ghana can probably match the midfield intensity that Senegal put on show today. The challenge for Idrissa Gueye and Kouyate, as well as the rest of the team, is now to sustain these kinds of displays – and avoid the ones like the second half showing versus Tunisia – for the rest of the tournament, especially against teams of the calibre of Ghana and Ivory Coast (assuming they progress). If they can, there’s no reason why they can’t lift the trophy in Libreville.

-Salim Masoud Said


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