Egypt’s rock-solid performance leaves Ghana nowhere to go
The Pharaohs once again showcased their defensive solidity in their final group game in Port Gentil, providing a rearguard display that would have Jose Mourinho rubbing his thighs in excitement, as they blockaded their way to the top of the group.
Remaining compact and narrow in light of Ghana’s evident threat from either wing, they effectively nullified the threat of Christian Atsu and Andre Ayew, with both of the Ghanaians struggling to break through the wall of Egyptian defenders they were presented with. Ahmed Hegazy and Ali Gabr were sensational at the back, marshalling the backline and getting rid of the ball one the odd occasion that it breached their penalty box perimeter. Flanked by their fullbacks and some disciplined defensive play from Egypt’s midfield, the Black Stars stood little chance.
With the individual talents of Mohamed Salah to rely upon for a moment of magic at the other end, Hector Cuper’s build-from-the-back policy continues to be evident, with his side yet to concede a goal in Gabon this tournament.
Gyan the main concern for Ghana after a night of indifference
It didn’t really matter what they did before the game, during the game or after the game – Ghana were through. With their opponents for the quarter-finals already known after Group C’s conclusion on Tuesday, the prospect of either a free-flowing-but-naive DRC side or an unambitious but awkward Morocco side meant it made little difference where Ghana finished in the group, with either side presenting their own challenges.
Unlike Aliou Cisse in Senegal’s final group game, Avram Grant picked a strong starting XI for this one, with captain and talisman Asamoah Gyan risked from the start. And a risk it indeed proved to be. Hobbling off in the first half – seemingly another casualty for the Port Gentil Hospital Knee-Injury Unit to deal with – the extent to which the Black Stars star is affected remains unknown. However, what we do know is that his ability to make it on the pitch for the knockout stages is imperative for Ghana’s chances.
Replaced by Jordan Ayew, you would imagine that the Aston Villa man would be the one to take on the mantle in lieu of Gyan if necessary, as he has done with basic competence in the past. Even so, Grant will be probably holding the ice pack on Gyan’s knee himself, so vital to his team’s success his captain is.
Egypt may concocted themselves a winning formula
With their three games in this tournament proving, Egypt have made themselves a formidable prospect in Gabon thus far, with their ugly-but-effective strategy having great potential to reap rewards if they play it right. Riddled with experience and seemingly drilled within an inch of their life, it is an approach that has brought much silverware in the past, with coach Hector Cuper very much hailing from the Herve Renard school of doing AFCON.
Traditionally not a tournament populated with open-minded football and commitment to attack, it is not surprising that Cuper has chosen this approach. Able to shield their way through games and take their chances where they can at the other end, it is a quite formidable plan, with a relatively seasoned and effective Black Stars attack given little chance to break them down.
Of course, the likes of Uganda, Mali and an already-qualified Ghana side is not exactly an effective test of their resolve. And whilst their next game against an equally shy Morocco may not test this either, it will show to what extent Cuper is willing to try and grab a goal if required, with a cagey and fearful performance in Port-Gentil in the quarter-final likely.
Mali disappoint again as they fail to beat the minnows
The Eagles of Mali have built their great recent success in AFCON on being very tough to beat and finding crucial goals. In this tournament, they have continued to be tough to beat, but totally lacked the killer touch we have seen in the past.
Perhaps missing the leadership and dynamism of Seydou Keita, the team has been built around too many erratic players – some young and developing, others just not very good. Bakary Sako, a tremendously talented player who goes missing far too often to be considered amongst the upper echelon of African talents, was the team’s lynch pin at the start of the tournament but found himself on the bench today due to two poor performances. Striker Moussa Marega somehow kept his berth and was again terrible, looking like a poor imitation of Cheick Diabate at his most frustrating.
In fact, it’s not just Keita that they have lost. It’s a whole generation, the reliable old guard who were there for the runs to the semis in 2012 and 2013, who have disappeared. Only one of the Malian players on the pitch today was over 30 – substitute Mustapha Yatabare (he turns 31 the day after their exit – happy birthday Mustapha). The youngsters replacing them look talented but need further development and game time. Had they been truly let off the leash in this tournament, they might have achieved a lot more under different management, because…
Giresse must go – from Mali and from African football
Alain Giresse has achieved a lot as a manager in African international football. He took Gabon to AFCON for the first time in 10 years in 2010, where they were unfortunate not to get out of their group. He then guided Mali on their famous run to the semi-finals in 2012, before a promising but ultimately underwhelming stint at Senegal leading up to the last AFCON, and now this unflattering exit from the tournament with Mali.
A wonderful, graceful playmaker who helped France win the Euros in 1984 alongside Platini, Tigana et al., Giresse the manager is the complete antipathy to Giresse the player. His sides have been based around graft and defensive organisation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it has at times been very effective. But with this exciting young Mali team, it has just been frustrating, as he has clearly sapped the life out of some very talented prospects, or simply not even played them – his selection decisions in this tournament have been quite bizarre. He has not got the best out of this team, and if prioritising this over the attractiveness of your teams football is your raison d’etre as a manager, that’s clearly a huge failure. Mali were neither attractive to watch, nor effective.
Giresse has threatened to retire in the recent past. Now 64, his methods have been found out and he is no longer as effective as he was the first time he managed Mali, justifying the old adage of “never go back”. It’s hard to see him adapting his ways to suit the new style of football coming in, where maybe grinding out results through sheer persistence, defensive organisation and snatching the old goal isn’t enough any more. He ought to retire at this point. But you just know that if he applies for more African jobs, at least one federation will take another punt on him because of his record, and that would be a real shame – African teams need new coaching blood, not more of this.
Uganda get their goal
At Sandals for Goalposts we have never hidden our admiration for the Uganda team. They have worked so hard to become one of the best African teams, a far cry from where they were a decade ago, and are now great ambassadors for one of the poorest countries in Africa. So we were absolutely overjoyed when they took the lead against Mali – and looked to be heading to a famous win.
Farouk Miya, the man who put the Cranes in the finals with the winning goal against Comoros, got to be the hero again, with a fine effort on the outside of his boot to beat Oumar Sissoko to score their first goal in the AFCON finals for 39 years – the previous Ugandan goal was scored by the late Phillip Omondi in the semi-final against Nigeria in Kumasi, securing them a spot in the final. Miya’s goal seemed like it might be enough to give them the win on the terrible waterlogged Oyen pitch, but Yves Bissouma’s sensational equaliser meant they had to settle for a point.
Hopefully this isn’t the last we see of Miya, Mawejje, Onyango et al at the AFCON finals. But they need more quality players of the level of those three if they are to progress, which is difficult to see coming at this stage given the lack of footballing infrastructure in the country, though it’s never out of the question. However, at least they got their moment in the Sun, and created some great memories for themselves and everyone watching at home.