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Group A in the Africa Cup of Nations is all over, and it's not pre-tournament favourites Senegal who emerge from the fray in the lead. In fact, Senegal don't emerge at all - they contrived to lose all three group games they played and leave the tournament with their collective tails between their legs on zero points. Instead, Zambia and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea are the team who've made it through, leaving Libya with Senegal on the outside looking in.
Senegal's fate had been decided before the last round of games, but the other three all had something to play for. Here's how things went down on Group A's final day.
Libya needed a win combined with a Zambia loss to have any hope of finishing second in the Group, and hard work against a Senegal team that - despite a run of poor results - still has plenty of quality ensured that they held up their end of the bargain. Ihaab Boussefi got them off to a dream start when he slotted home a cutback from Ahmed Saad in the fifth minute, and although Deme N'Diaye replied immediately for Senegal with a header from a corner, Boussefi would give Libya the 2-1 win with a very late second goal, a spectacular volley that probably deserved to earn his team qualification. Unfortunately for Libya, thanks to results elsewhere, it did not, and they finished third with four points.
A draw would seal up top spot for co-hosts Equatorial Guinea, but if they lost Zambia would instead take their spot. With qualification secure for both teams, as long as they drew, the match played out at a slow, even tedious pace. Apparently the threat of facing the Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals wasn't enough to give Eq. Guinea the motivation to kill off Zambia, and they paid the price when Christopher Katongo scored midway through the second half to gift Zambia a 1-0 win - and top spot in Group A with seven points. Eq. Guinea finish second with six.
Nobody would call Ghana's play on Saturday brilliant, but a late surge netted them the two goals they needed and a 2-0 win over Mali. Playing without the suspended John Mensah, Ghana were sloppy for most of the match, but their two goals were fantastic and have them on the verge of the knockout stages at the Africa Cup of Nations.
There was nothing interesting to speak of in the early going as the ball bounced around a packed midfield, but after the opening half-hour things began to open up some and Mali earned themselves a few chances. Unfortunately for Mali, their finishing was poor and it led some to wonder what Mali would have been had Frederic Kanoute not retired. Kanoute wasn't out there though and all of Mali's chances went for naught.
It wasn't as if Ghana were dominated though. They also had chances and were equally as wasteful. That is until the 63rd minute when Asamoah Gyan 25-yard free kick cleared the wall and dipped just under the bar. It was a perfect free kick and the Black Stars had their breakthrough, leading to a choreographed goal celebration dance along the sideline.
Only 13 minutes later, Ghana was dancing again. This time the goal came from the right as Gyan's backheel opened up just a bit of space for Andre Ayew, who cut in, then back out to clear the slightest bit of space for himself before firing towards the near post. Soumaila Diakite was beaten and Ghana had put the game to bed at 2-0 with under 15 minutes to go.
With the win, Ghana are now on six points in Group D, three points clear of Mali and Guinea. A win or draw over Guinea in their finale will put them through to the knockout stages, while Mali will square off against Botswana in their final group stage match.
Guinea bounced back from their opening-round defeat against Mali by absolutely steamrollering Botswana. Sadio Diallo got Guinea off to a great start as he took advantage of some poor defending, finding himself able to drive home a low cross to make it 1-0 in the 15th minute, but Botswana, who impressed in their loss to Ghana, got back into the match thanks to some questionable play by Naby-Moussa Yattara, who brought down Jerome Ramatlhokwane, giving away a penalty and earning himself a yellow card in the process.
Yattara nearly made up for his mistake when he saved Dipsy Selolwane's initial spot kick, but he was well off his line and the assistant referee flagged for a retake, which Selolwane buried to level the scores - the country's first ever goal in the tournament. That was the last time the game would look anything like close, as Guinea would immediately snatch one back and Botswana would subsequently fall apart.
It was Diallo who made it 2-1, once again taking advantage of the fact that nobody was marking him in the centre of the penalty area to finish first time past Modiri Marumo. Abdoulaye Camara added a third when a quick free kick caught Botswana napping and let him cut inside to power a shot home at the near post, and then a rather unsavoury incident doomed the match - Botswana substitute Patrick Motsepe went in on Pascal Feindouno with a really nasty tackle and was shown a straight red card. Ibrahima Traore made Botswana pay further when the resultant free kick was smacked in off the far post.
Guinea, up 4-1 at this point, were able to coast through a second half whose major storyline was Ismael Bangoura's bizarre inability to score a goal. The striker hit the woodwork twice and the linesman missed a legitimate goal when Bangoura's superb shot crashed off the bottom of the woodwork, crossed the line, and bounced out of play.
Although it looked like Guinea were happy to settle for 4-1, they added a pair of goals through Mamadou Bah and Naby Soumah late on to become only the third team ever to score six goals in a match at the Africa Cup of Nations. The really crazy thing? They could have had more.
Gabon advance to the Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals after a brilliant 3-2 win against Morocco that sees the losers out of the tournament. It's a win that didn't look at all likely for most of the game - Morocco were the better side in the first half and absolutely nobody was surprised when Houssine Kharja slammed the ball past Didier Ovono and into the back of the net int he 24th minute.
The hosts improved after the break and started to batter Nadir Lamyaghri's goal. However, they simply weren't making any progress and after 75 minutes it looked as though Morocco would be able to see the game out. Then Pierre Aubameyang, who had impressed (and scored) against Niger in Gabon's opening match showed up, demonstrating perfect form as he volleyed a loose ball past Lamyghri and into the back of the net.
Gabon barely had an opportunity to celebrate before they managed to notch another, this time through substitute Daniel Cousin, who managed to shank his finish in a way that saw the ball swerve straight into the bottom corner to make it 2-1. The home crowd was going mental - if the score stayed that way, Gabon were going through.
It didn't. As injury time loomed, Younes Belhanda launched a hopeful shot towards the Gabon goal, only to see the ball bounce off a defender's hand. It was a clear penalty, and Kharja stepped up to lash the equaliser into the back of the net. A contentious eight minutes of stoppage time played out before Gabon were awarded a very late free kick near the corner of the box. While everyone waited for a cross, Bruno Zita crashed the ball in at the near post, catching Lamyaghri flat-footed, making the score 3-2 and sending Gabon through to the quarterfinals with the last kick of the match.
With Gabon's win, Morocco, who've lost two from two, are out of the Cup of Nations, as are Niger. Tunisia are through to the quarters, and the two teams will battle it out to determine who ends up as group winners on Tuesday.
Tunisia beat Niger 2-1 to go on the verge of qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals, but were made to work extremely hard after an excellent display by their relatively lowly opponents in a fast-paced, open match. Despite scoring an early goal when Youssef Msakni danced through the heart of Niger's defence to slot in at the far post, Tunisia never looked as though they were in for an easy ride - speedster Moussa Maazou had already gotten free of the defence only for the Niger striker to miss a clean one on one chance, and he was involved in the equaliser four minutes after Msakni opened the scoring.
To say Niger's goal came against the run of play would be understating things, but Tunisia were the ones who shot themselves in the foot. A long ball with crazy spin floated lazily towards Aymen Mathlouthi's box, hanging up invitingly for the goalkeeper to catch, but for some reason Mathlouthi let it bounce and then had his attempt to claim thwarted by Maazou, who slapped the ball* out of the keeper's grasp, allowing it to bounce right onto the head of William N'Gounou, who nodded into an empty net.
*Yes, this is normally called a 'handball'. Ah well.
The goal reinvigorated Niger, who were no doubt deeply amused by the indignation provided by more or less the entire Tunisia team, and they began to look deeply threatening, especially whenever Maazou got involved - he missed twice more with just Mathlouthi to beat (although the second was within a foot of going it) and probably should have been given a penalty when Karim Haggui fouled him in the box.
The two sides exchanged woodwork hits, with Aymen Abdennour rattling Kassaly Daouda's post after Boubacar Issoufou had done the same to Mathlouthi, but it was Niger who looked most threatening in the second half, with Maazou repeatedly thwarted by bad calls by the linesman after making a series of very clever runs.
As so often happens, however, the missed opportunities came back to bite, and hard. With 89 minutes spent, Niger made a mess of things in their own penalty area, allowing substitute Issam Jemaa to hammer home to make it 2-1. Tunisia nearly added undeserved gloss to the scoreline when they rattled the crossbar minutes later, but Jemaa's goal was good enough, and they now find themselves in commanding position to qualify with six points from six.
The Ivory Coast managed to advance to the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations against minnows Burkina Faso but were made to work far harder than their status as pre-tournament favourites would have indicated. With Yaya Toure and Gervinho both more or less anonymous for the Elephants, Burkina Faso had plenty of the play and came very close to getting something out of the match.
It looked as though the game would be a cakewalk for the Ivory Coast in the very early stages when their Chelsea contingent linked up for a great goal*, with Didier Drogba doing very well to get a cross away while under pressure from multiple defenders and Salomon Kalou finishing smartly on the half-volley. However, Burkina Faso slowly drew the sting out of the Ivory Coast's attack, began to keep hold of the ball, and even made a few noises towards Boubacar Barry's goal in the first half through long-range shots by Alain Traore.
*Although by that point Burkina Faso had already been denied a sure penalty when Jonathan Pitroipa was hacked down by Soulyemane Bamba.
The Elephants had chances to pull away, but unfortunately they were mostly falling to Gervinho, who continued his Arsenal habit of pulling embarrassing misses out of sure goal-scoring situations. Their problems at the top were compounded when goalscorer Kalou went down with a hamstring injury shortly after the hour mark, further reducing their firepower.
Burkina Faso seemed to take encouragement from the Ivory Coast's failure to kill them off, with Traore again testing Barry before a header by Dagano bounced off the deck and rattled the crossbar, but a freak own goal by Bakary Kone killed off any hope of a comeback, the Lyon man floating a backwards header over a despairing Daouda Diakite and into the top corner to make it 2-0 with less than ten minutes left.
The loss condemns Burkina Faso to dropping out of the Africa Cup of Nations at the first hurdle with zero points from their first two games, but it confirms the Ivory Coast's place in the quarterfinals.
You'd have forgiven Angola if they considered their match against Sudan to have been over within the first five minutes, when Manucho Barros took advantage of an awful error by Sudan centre half Najem Abdullah, raced into the penalty area, and then slid the ball past Akram El Hadi to make it 1-0. After all, Sudan hadn't scored in the Africa Cup of Nations since 1976.
However, this isn't your parents' Sudan team, and they were playing some interesting football with very tidy one-touch passing moves. For a while, it didn't look as if it was actually going to go anywhere - it was like watching a more likeable African Arsenal side - but eventually they managed to work the ball to the right wing for Eltaib Mudather and the subsequent cross was met with a fine header by Mohamed Bashir to make it 1-1.
Angola took the lead again after halftime when Hamid Nazar brought down Djalma in the penalty area, allowing Manucho to make it two with a well-struck spot kick, but they couldn't hold their lead, and Bashir stole in to take advantage of a lapse in judgement in the heart of the Angola defence, lashing a loose ball into the roof of the net to make things 2-2.
The game remained open right until the death, with both teams creating plenty of chances, but neither could find the net. Sudan were perhaps unfortunate not to snatch all three points - Angolan goalkeeper Carlos did well (even if his style was somewhat unorthodox) to prevent Bashir from grabbing another goal - but one suspects that they're more than happy with the point and an impressive display.
Hosts Equatorial Guinea qualified for the second stage of the Africa Cup of Nations in dramatic fashion, breaking a 1-1 tie during stoppage time through a thunderbolt from the right boot of David Kily. Just minutes after Senegal's Moussa Sow had seemingly postponed the party, the ball rolled out to the defender and his 30-yard blast soared over the waterlogged pitch, past Bouna Coundoul and into the back of the net to win the game.
That goal did more than just ensure that Equatorial Guinea advanced with a game to spare - it also knocked out pre-tournament favourites Senegal, who now find themselves with no points from a possible six. It's a hugely disappointing performance by the Senegalese, who boasted three top-tier attackers this season in Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse and Moussa Sow, but appalling conditions in the Estadio de Bata* ensured that their more skilled players were more or less neutralised.
*The match was delayed 75 minutes thanks to a rainstorm and the pitch was still well and truly waterlogged for the entire match.
The sloppy field conditions led to a sloppy game, but there were still enough chances to keep things interesting and Senegal were stunned when the hosts converted one, Randy stealing in at the far post to head home from Kily's cross. Facing elimination, Senegal threw as many bodies forward as possible, but nothing seemed to be working, and with time running out small parties had already broken out in the stands.
Sow's goal, a hooked volley after a scramble in the box, put a stop to the premature celebrations, but Kily's brilliant hit saw them redoubled. Equatorial Guinea are through, and Senegal are out.
After a delay of more than an hour thanks to torrential rains in Equatorial Guinea, Libya and Zambia played out an odd little game on what was basically a flooded mudbath. The ball barely moved along the ground, making the whole affair seem somewhat farcical, but the two sides battled hard nonetheless and managed to turn what could have been a really awful match of football into something that very much approached fun.
Unfancied Libya struck first. After Zambia defence was ripped open by a through ball from Walid El Khatroushi, Ahmed Saad latched onto the pass and slipped a shot past Kennedy Mweene. The match was just five minutes old. Despite going behind, Zambia looked the birhgter side and were able to level just before the half hour mark, Emmanuel Mayuka doing extremely well to volley a long pass over his shoulder into the back of the net from a difficult angle.
Libya were perhaps lucky to go into the break level - Zambia were the better side but were being slowed down badly by the awful state of the pitch, so it was odd to see them score straight from the restart. A pass into the Zambia box ended up going to Ahmed Saad and the striker took a few touches before lifting his shot over Mweene and into the back of the net for his brace. The match wouldn't stay level long, however, as an excellent cross and header combination by Mayuko and Christopher Katongo saw the latter nod home at the far post with Samir Aboud helpless.
There were plenty of chances for both sides to win it as the game wound down - and Zambia should almost certainly have had a penalty in their last kick of the match - but ultimately neither team could force the ball in, and we ended up with our first draw of the tournament at 2-2.
We might not have been expecting a particularly close contest between Mali and Guinea but the two teams combined to give us a superb attacking display that neither side deserved to lose. Guinea, who entered the match very much the underdogs, were probably the better side in the first half but a vicious half-volley by Bakaye Traore which Naby-Moussa Yattara could do absolutely nothing about sizzled its way into the back of the net.
Guinea's spirit was not dampened by conceding and they continued to make Mali sweat, weaving neat passing patterns in an attempt to break down their resolute opponents. Barcelona man Seydou Keita was instrumental in Mali's organisation and the heart of most of their good play on the attack as well. Slowly, though, they became more focused on keeping the ball away from Guinea, doing their best to restrict chances. It worked (just about - Soumaila Diakite was forced into several saves, including a brilliant one to keep things level right at the end), and Mali emerged 1-0 victors - if rather bloodied ones.
It was a rough start to the Africa Cup of Nations for Ghana, pegged by many as favourites to win the whole thing, but the Black Stars pulled through against an impressive Botswana side - despite going down to ten men in the second half - and came away with a 1-0 win.
Botswana were obviously away that they couldn't compete with Ghana in a pure shootout and opted to play very deep, setting up a tight, organised defence and forcing their illustrious opponents to go wide. It looked as though they had things covered in open play, but set pieces are the bane of a tight defensive scheme and when Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu' corner was flicked on by former Sunderland man Asamoah Gyan, it was simplicity itself for John Mensah to stab home at the far post.
Botswana, who had offered zero attack before the goal looked equally disinclined to force matters afterwards. It took until the second half for them to mount a meaningful foray forward, but they nearly scored with their first attack of the game after Moemedi Moatlhaping headed back across goal with Adam Larsen nowhere to be found. Jerome Ramathlakwane was on hand to knock home at the far post only for the ball to be intercepted virtually on the line via a spectacular overhead kick by centre back John Boye.
Ghana weren't out of the woods yet, as fifteen minutes later Mensah was sent for an early bath after bringing down Jerome as the striker looked to bear down on goal after being released by an awful Anthony Annan backpass. Mensah had little choice but to commit the professional foul on the edge of the area, but it was a clear red card offence and the Black Stars had to see out the rest of the match with ten men.
With Botswana seemingly holding the advantage, it was time for the individual skill of Ghana's players to shine through. Both Gyan and Andre Ayew did spectacular jobs of holding up the ball and burning time as their team tried to chew up the clock, and Ghana actually looked more comfortable with ten men than they did eleven. There were some nervy moments, of course, but when the smoke cleared the score was still 1-0.
While Gabon vs. Niger was one of the more one-sided matches you'll see at the Africa Cup of Nations, Tunisia vs. Morocco was an excellent, back and forth game which featured, well, pretty much everything. High pressure attacking mixed with silly misses, solid defending interspersed with utter calamities, and a successful slide tackle by a goalkeeper 35 yards from his own net.
Morocco, led by the inimitable Marouane Chamakh, were on top at the beginning of the game, playing pretty football but failing to trouble Aymen Mathlouthi overmuch, either missing the goal entirely or blasting straight at him. There were warnings that they'd regret being so wasteful - Zouheir Dhaouadi rattled the post with a long range effort in the 25th minute and Nadir Lamyaghri had to do well to beat away an early shot from Karim Haggui - and they'd pay the price when a free kick by Khaled Korbi was defended awfully and went straight into the back of the net.
1-0 down at the half, Morocco responded by added Queens Park Rangers midfield Adel Taarabt to the fray. They spurned a great chance to go level when Youssouf Hadji smashed a volleyed effort just wide, but instead found themselves facing a two-goal deficit after Tunisia substitute Youssef Msakni danced through the heart of their defence and slotted home via a deflection.
With four minutes left to go, Morocco roused themselves and were able to get back into the match via a controversial goal, Ahmed Kantari feeding Houssine Kharja from a clearly offside position for the midfielder to acrobatically lash into the net, but the scramble to find a second just didn't pay off, and the match would end 2-1.
Niger might have put on a reasonable showing in Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, but they were clearly out-matched against co-hosts Gabon in their opening game of the actual tournament. The match was one-sided from the beginning, with Gabon getting chance after chance while Niger struggled to get the ball out of their own half. It didn't take long before pressure took its toll, with Pierre Aubameyang nodding in a superb cross from Stephane N'Guema on the half-hour mark to give the favourites a 1-0 lead.
More was to come, and it was again N'Guema and Aubameyang who provided the threat after the latter's header forced Kassaly Daouda into a fine save only for the lurking N'Guema to cash in on the rebound on the stroke of halftime. The rest of the game was seen out in comfortable fashion, and although Niger nearly notched their first-ever Cup of Nations goal as the game began to wind down Didier Ovono came up with a big save from Boubacar Issoufou's header to maintain the clean sheet and the two-goal lead that Gabon thoroughly deserved.
Cote D'Ivoire were not at their best and looked nothing like the pre-tournament favorites that they are, but they did enough to find all three points in what was hopefully just a warm-up game before they get to the real football. Didier Drogba was unsurprisingly the goal-scorer in Les Elephants' 1-0 win over Sudan -- and the goal was a great one -- but it was the only real moment of brilliance for his side.
The goal came in the 39th minute after a very slow and lazy start to the match. Once Cote D'Ivoire decided to start playing at a reasonably quick pace, they were able to create a goal. Cheick Tiote provided the assist in an uncharacteristic manner, drifting out to the left side and putting in a beautiful cross. Drogba found the gap in the defense and hit a powerful header into the back of the net, scoring the only goal of the match.
And...that was it. Sudan had a few decent shots, but it felt like Cote D'Ivoire could have flipped on the switch whenever they wanted to. Boubacar Barry was very good in goal for Les Elephants, though he never had to do anything truly spectacular. The Cote D'Ivoire midfield lacked creativity, and it's likely that Abdul Kader Keita -- an 80th minute sub -- could start in future matches.
The Ivory Coast kick off their Cup of Nations campaign against Sudan, while Angola and Burkina Faso look to take the upper hand in the race for a quarterfinal spot
Zambia have put themselves in a brilliant position to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals for the second straight tournament with a surprise 2-1 win over Group A favorites Senegal. While Senegal have perhaps the best striking options in the entire tournament, the rest of their team didn't look up to the task. The Lions' midfield, defense, and goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul were all shocking in the first half, and Zambia's two goals were well deserved.
Emmanuel Mayuka and Rainford Kalaba both provided good finishes, but their opportunities were gifted to them. Mayuka's came in the 12th minute on a header, where the defense inexplicably allowed the 5-foot-9 forward to get his head on a ball on the edge of the six-yard area. The second goal came in the 20th minute, with the Senegal midfield nowhere to be found. Christopher Katongo had plenty of time and space to find Kalaba with a pass, and he finished calmly. Zambia would carry their 2-0 lead into halftime.
FC Copenhagen ace Dame N'Doye got his team back in the game with a great control and near-post finish in the 74th minute, but Senegal wouldn't find an equalizer. Zambia did well to attack an unsettled back line and midfield in the first half, then hold onto their lead against a team that had no deal creator for all of their striking talent.
The pressure is now on Zambia to perform later on Saturday and in their subsequent matches. At the end of a wide-open match that looked like it would inexplicably end in a 0-0 draw, Equatorial Guinea finally found a late winner in front of their home fans in Bata, with Javier Balboa netting in the 87th minute to give his side a 1-0 victory. Libya will now need a miracle to advance as their strongest games lie ahead of them, while the hosts are in a great position to make the quarterfinals.
Equatorial Guinea had a goal incorrectly disallowed in the first half, when Libya goalkeeper and captain Samir Aboud committed a terrible howler, letting a shot go between his legs. Kily was flagged for offside even though he wasn't interfering with play and the goal was ruled out.
Balboa's finish on the eventual goal was great, but the assist from Daniel Ekedo -- a through-ball from the middle of the pitch to put Balboa one-on-one with Aboud -- was absolutely brilliant. Ekedo incredibly entered the game just one minute before providing the assist, coming on for injured captain Bodipo. After being released into a one-on-one situation, Balboa finished emphatically with a hard shot into the back of the net, giving his team the lead.
Libya had a couple of desperation chances late, as well as a penalty shout, but Abdallah Sharif was correctly booked for a dive in that instance. The game actually featured a fair bit of diving and shenanigans from Libya, all of which was to no avail. Equatorial Guinea hit the post twice in addition to their winner and their wrongly disallowed goal, so their victory was well deserved.
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