AFCON 2015 Cup Final – Cote D’Ivoire v Ghana

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February 8th and the scene is set for one of the most anticipated Africa Cup of Nations finals in recent history. Two of the continent’s heavyweight to face off in a dream final. The competition favourites Cote D’Ivoire against the Black Stars of Ghana, both teams who have massively under-achieved in this tournament. The Ivorians last won in 1992, that day again against Ghana, whilst the Black Stars will look to end a drought that has now lasted 33 years. Would it be Manchester City’s talisman Yaya Toure holding the cup aloft this evening in the Estadio de Bata or Asamoah Gyan, Ghana’s Babyjet, the stakes so high for both sides, the perfect finale to wonderful tournament, not without it’s negative aspects but on the whole a huge success considering the difficult circumstances it has faced. Herve Renard, the Elephants’ coach would be looking to repeat his success from 2012 with the Zambian team, his opposite number Avram Grant keen though, to put right his previous final disappointment, coming in the form of Champions League defeat to Manchester United whilst Chelsea manager in 2008.

Both teams came into the final on the back of convincing semi-final victories, Ghana in particular have grown stronger through the competition after a shock opening defeat to Senegal. The Cote d’Ivoire side have not been without criticism either, their defence coming in for some harsh words from their home press and media, Yaya Toure also being noted as not performing to his usual standard. The good news for Ghana was the news that Asamoah Gyan would be fit to start after missing the semi-final through injury. As expected it was a very cagey start to the match, both sides reluctant to commit players forward. It wasn’t until quarter of the match had passed until we saw the first clear-cut chance appear, through a long range shot from Christian Atsu rattling the Ivorian post with Boubacar Barry well beaten. The Lokeren stopper playing in place of the injured Sylvain Gbohouo, was again beaten on the thirty five minute mark this time by Andre Ayew who was put through by a clever pass from Baba Rahman,  but the woodwork was to save the day for Cote D’Ivoire again. the closest the Ivorians came in the first half was through a shot by Max Gradel, high over the crossbar after good work from Gervinho. Otherwise the first half was a forgettable affair, the Black Stars probably going in the happiest of the two sides but the match very much evenly poised going into the second half.

There was to be no opening up in the game as the second half went on though, with the ninety minute mark growing closer, both sides erred very much on the side of caution rather than looking to exploit any defensive frailties. Brimah Razak in the Ghanaian goal, in particular was under-worked with the Ivorians failing to create any real pressure of note throughout the second forty five minute period. As the prospect of extra-time loomed ever closer, both defences shut up shop, getting bodies behind the ball the order of the day. Christian Atsu who had been lively in the first half was starved of any decent ball and when finding himself in possession lacked any support required to mount an offence of any kind. In the Ivorian side, Yaya Toure was once again fairly anonymous playing deeper and deeper as the game wore on and regardless of how the Final pans out Equatorial Guinea will not be remembered as a vintage performance by him, coming well short of the standard expected of the formidable Elephants’ captain. Thirty further minutes of extra-time was unable to spark the game into life either, neither side being coaxed into mounting any serious attack. As tactical changes were made with a penalty shoot-out in mind it was a surprise to see Avram Grant haul Asamoah Gyan off in the final seconds, replaced by Udinese’s Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu. It was by no means a classic encounter worthy of a cup final between the two super-powers of African football but both teams had stuck to their defensive game plans and it was now down to a penalty shoot-out to decide the 2015 African champions.

If we had been starved of incident and excitement during 120 minutes of football in Bata, the shoot-out was to more than make up for it. Wilfired Bony, anonymous on the night was first to step up, smashing the crossbar with his strike. After Wakaso Mubarak slotted his spot-kick past Barry, Tallo Gadji shot wide with a terrible effort. When Jordan Ayew stepped up to make it 2-0 things were not looking good for Cote D’Ivoire but how quickly fortunes can change in the drama that is the penalty-shoot out. Afriyie Acquah and Frank Acheampong would then miss the next two spot-kicks for the Black Stars, Sege Aurier and Seydou Doumbia’s successful efforts evening things up at 2-2 with 4 penalties taken apiece. Amazingly the next twelve penalties would be converted successfully, leaving it dwon to a battle between the respective goal-keepers. First up Black Stars Brimah Razak, who’s effort was pushed wide by Boubacar Barry, deserved of a second save in the shoot-out as he had got his hands on a couple of efforts during the sudden death penalties and very unlucky to not see some more saved. Now he stepped up to take a spot kick knowing if he scored the Cup was theirs. The second string keeper could now be the hero of a nation and with the calmness of a veteran striker who has put away countless penalties in such stressful circumstances he coolly slotted past Razak who guessed the right way but was unable to save. The Ivorians were rapturous, the chokers tag now finally gone, the golden generation had proved good and would be now remembered as deserved African Champions. Herve Renard once again proved his quality not only as a manager but also as a man, seeking out both Ayew brothers to console them in defeat. The Black Stars, once again unsuccessful had probably played the best football in the competition but had once again fallen short, though can consider themselves victorious in some ways having won back the support and pride of a nation so disconsolate after the off field scandals last year in Brazil. It was certainly no great shame in their loss to a fantastic Ivorian side who under Renard can look to starting an era of dominance in the Cup of Nations.

The competition had proved to be a great success, as always not without it’s controversies. The Quarter-Final and Semi Finals involving Equatorial Guinea brought about unsavoury scenes which will damage the game’s reputation on the continent but the standard f football on the pitch remains of a high quality and we have been treated to some spectacular games and breath-taking goals over the last two weeks In the end Ghana swept the tournament awards, the Everton youngster Christian Atsu taking the player of the tournament and goal of the tournament, Kwesi Appiah the individual fairplay award and Andre Ayew the top scorer. This will all count for nothing of course as the one title that matters is the team name on the cup which for 2015 reads Cote D’Ivoire, AFCON Champions.

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Semi Final – Equatorial Guinea v Ghana

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So to the Nuevo Estadio de Malabo for the second semi-final and a place in the final against C’ote D’Ivoire to play for. Equatorial Guinea, even as host nation coming into the game as underdogs after a controversial Quarter-Final victory over Tunisia. The fall-out from that game continues, with referee Rajindraprasad Seechum picking up a six month suspension for his poor performance and a fine handed out to Tunisia for their reaction at the final whistle. That’s not to say the National Thunder have not been impressive on the pitch, looking every bit worth the final four side they have over-achieved to become. As we know, Equatorial Guinea’s preparation for the tournament was less than ideal, having originally being suspended for a player registration mix up, then stepping in as hosts as late as last November. But they face Ghana as an unbeaten team, after two draws taking care of Gabon comfortably before the controversial Quarter-Final win. The Black Stars started the tournament far less impressively with a loss to Senegal. They followed this up with a vitally important win over Algeria, an injury time winner by the ever-impressive Asamoah Gyan being the key moment so far for the Ghanaians. From there they were victorious over South Africa and a weak Guinea side, nevertheless expectations have now been raised and the fans now expect victory over the hosts, even without the injured Gyan.

The gulf in talent between the two teams was soon apparent in the game itself, Ghana looking the superior side their FIFA ranking suggests, 81 places in between the two African nations. The Equatorial Guinea game plan seemed to consist of pressurising the referee as much as possible, some unsavoury scenes occurring with each and every member of the paying squad of their feet to appeal for a yellow card to be given to Harrison Afful for a late challenge. A stop start game ensued, Ghana unable to breach the Equatorial Guinea goal, not for want of trying. Kwesi Appiah playing as the lone front man in Gyan’s absence was a strong presence, showing good movement and tireless in his runs. It was from one of these runs that that led to the deadlock being broken just after the forty minute mark, Appiah upended by keeper Felipe Ovono after being sent through on goal by the excellent Christian Atsu. The penalty was dispatched by Jordan Ayew who has had his detractors during the tournament, perhaps spurring the Lorient winger on to a strong display in this semi-final. It was to get worse for Equatorial Guinea seconds later after a breakaway goal from an attacking corner. Atsu, again at the heart of things, drove deep into the Equatorial Guinea half before finding Celtic’s Wakaso Mubarak in the box who took one touch inside before blasting past Ovono to make it two nil. The home crowd did not take kindly to this, the Ghana players shamefully needing protection form police shields as they left the pitch to a hail of bottles.

The second half brought more of the same and more, increased pressure on the Equatorial Guinea defence as they struggled to cope with the pace of Atsu and Andre Ayew’s clever play. Ayew himself, should have made the score three nil with a short range header ten minutes into the half, which he somehow put wide. It was then Atsu’s turn to attack the National Thunder’s back-tracking defenders, once again playing in Appiah who was this time denied by great goal-keeping, Ovono out quickly to save at the Cambridge United striker’s feet. With fifteen minutes remaining the scenario was repeated, Ovono again saving at Appiah’s feet, this time after a defence-splitting pass from Baba Rahman. This time, though, Appiah was able to gain the rebound, calmly looking up to pick out Andre Ayew in the box for a simple tap in, 3-0 and the Black Stars were coasting to the final. Things would not be that simple though and not due to on-field activity either, Ghana far and above the superior side, Equatorial Guinea unable to the lynchpin Javier Balboa into the game at all. The first signs of serious trouble, aside form the fairly constant barrage of water bottles was the sight of hundreds of Ghanaian fans converged behind the Equatorial Guinea goal. They had made their way down onto the pitch for their own safety due to violent scenes in the stands. What followed will remain a black mark in the competition’s history, the match being halted due to the ongoing disturbances in the stands. The game was brought to a halt and the players huddled in the centre-circle as farcical scenes ensued. There seemed to be disagreements between the CAF officials and the referee as to whether the remainder of the game would be seen out, all the while the players remained on the pitch for the best part of half an hour. As the helicopters circled above the stadium the crowd’s behaviour seemed to worsen despite the protestations  of the Equatorial Guinean players who pleaded with the fans to behave to no avail. In the end five minutes of play did resume before the final whistle was blown but unfortunately a fine Ghanaian performance would be overshadowed by events off the pitch on this occasion.

Semi Final – DR Congo v Cote d’Ivoire

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The 4th of February and the Estadio de Bata was the location for the first semi-final of the 2015 Africa Cup of nations. Tournament favourites Cote d’Ivoire taking on DR Congo, fresh from a resounding victory over their Congolese counterparts. Although that was the first win of the competition for the DR Congo Leopards, they also come into the semi-final unbeaten. The Ivorians themselves also unbeaten have steadily improved through the rounds, starting to show their quality and strength in the knockout stages, albeit with a question mark over their back four with the exception of Kolo Toure. He has come into his own during the competition, overshadowing his sibling Yaya and will hope that Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has been taking note, the Ivorian finding himself on the outer at club level for most of the season so far. DR Congo’s danger man will again be Dieumerci Mbokani, scorer of two in the Quarter-Finals, the Dinamo Kyiev front-man has impressed throughout and will again be the focal point of the Leopards attack. He will be ably assisted by Yannick Bolasie, another who has been impressive in Equatorial Guinea and will look to feed Mbokani, his devastating pace enough to trouble any defence.

The game started uneventfully, neither side able to keep possession for any length of time, play broken up by free-kicks and a lack of urgency from both sides. The game was to spark into life at the twenty minute mark though, and in an unforgettable manner. Wilfired Bony found himself in possession inside the DR Congo box but his attempt to play in Gervinho was blocked by opposition defender Joel Kimwaki, but the ball sat up perfectly for Yaya Toure striding through, who smashed in an unstoppable screamer from 20 yards, a glorious opening goal worthy of the four-time African player of the Year. As we’ve seen throughout the competition, the lead was short lived, four minutes to be exact. The equaliser come from the penalty spot, Mbokani confidently side-footing past Sylvain Gbohouo after Eric Bailly had handles in the box after mis-timing his jump for a header. The equaliser failed to spur the Congolese Leopards into life though, finding themselves on the back foot for the rest of the half. The Elephants came close to equalising 5 minutes before half time when a perfectly weighted cross from Serge Aurier found Gervinho in the box but his header was kept out by a combination of cross-bar and the head of Gabriel Zakuani, fine defending from the Peterborough United centre back. Gervinho was not to be denied though, seconds later Bony played the Roma marksman through on goal with just the keeper to beat, this time making no mistake, expertly side-footing past Robert Kidiaba to make the score 2-1 going into the half time interval.

The second half was now make or break for DR Congo and they started the second period with some attacking verve, Bolassie instrumental in creating an early chance, once again using his pace and skill but often suffered from a lack of ball as the second half continued. Slowly but surely Herve Renard’s were turning the screw, the Leopards chasing shadows on occasion and after 67 minutes the lead was extended to 3-1, somewhat inevitably when Wilfried Kanon adjusted well to knee in a rebounded Aurier header, from a Yaya Toure corner. The wild celebrations that ensued showed a side that knew they were in the final now, DR Congo’s deflation evident in the subdued nature of the remainder of the game.

Afterwards Ivorian coach Herve Renard insisted his side can move up a gear from their semi-final performance, if they are to win their first Africa Cup of Nations title since 1992. With the added incentive of suffering two recent final defeats, in 2006 and 2012, to add to many other tournament disappointments, it’s difficult to look past the Elephants now going on to become Champions on Sunday. Renard himself was involved in one of those final defeats, when in charge of Zambia in 2012 and has the winning mentality important in getting any team across the line, especially for a team now so used to failure on the big stage. Either Ghana or Equatorial Guinea will also have plenty to say in whether the 22 year Ivorian drought can be broken but on paper they have a superior side to anyone left in the competition but as we have seen so many times at the Africa Cup of Nations, this counts for nothing.

Quarter-Final 4. Algeria v C’ote d’Ivoire

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Perhaps the most difficult of the Quarter-Finals matches at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations was the fourth and final one between an impressive Algeria and favourites coming into the competition, the star-studded Cote d’Ivoire. Although unbeaten coming into this match, the Ivorians have flattered to deceive so far in Equatorial Guinea with star man Yaya Toure unable to truly shine throughout the group stage. Algeria had tasted defeat with a last minute goal conceded to Ghana, but were impressive in their other two games brushing aside South Africa and Senegal respectively.

It was Algeria who started the better of the two teams, settling early with nice touches in midfield and looking assured at the back, captain Bougherra the lynchpin of a strong defence. The warning signs were there for all to see before the ten minute mark when Porto’s Yacine Brahimi surged into the Ivorian box, his deflected cross causing mayhem and confusion amongst the defenders, El Arbi Soudanii capitalising but his shot was tame and dealt with easily enough by ‘keeper Sylvain Gbohouo. It was further proof to add to the argument that Cote d’Ivoire’s weakness is in their defensive abilities, coach Renard looked on suitably unimpressed by what he saw. But gradually the Ivorian Elephants crept into the match, Gervinho back in the starting line-up after serving a suspension, looking dangerous when in possession, but just after the twenty minute mark it was Serge Aurier who came close with a headed effort coming back off the base of the Algerian post. But the West African giants were not to be denied, going one-up four minutes later when Bony headed home a tantalising cross from Max Gradel. The Algerian defence were caught flat-footed, even keeper M’Bolhi seeming confident Bony was off-side but replays showed the Manchester City frontman was clearly on-side by some distance.

One nil is how it remained until half-time at the Nuevo Estadio de Malabo, a far more gripping game than the one-sided Quarter-Final earlier in the day between Ghana and Guinea. With a semi-final place against the DR Congo up for grabs Christian Gourcuff’s Desert Warriors started the second half with far more purpose, first to everything the urgency was back in their play. And within five minutes of the second-half kick-off they were deservedly level, Soudhani firing home a pass from the ever impressive Riyad Mahrez. The Ivorian defence had once again, not covered themselves in glory in the build up to the goal, much to the disgust if the increasingly animated Herve Renard on the sideline. The game was to hinge on a two minute period shortly after the hour mark though. Firstly Gbohouo needed to be at his best to save at point-blank range from Soudhani, one of the saves of the tournament, in importance as well as quality. Merely seconds later, Yaya Toure lofted forward a free-kick which Wilfried Bony again got his head to, powering a magnificent header past M’Bolhi to put the Ivorians ahead against the run of play.

This was a killer punch in the match and rocked Algeria, now behind in a game they had been dominating. They continued to push forward, for once the Ivorian defence resolute, Kolo Toure showing his vast experience in a steady, hard-working performance. Dinamo Zagreb’s Hilal Soudani continued to look dangerous but the Algerians, despite their throwing bodies forward were unable to trouble Gbohouo in the closing exchanges. Inevitably the gaps appeared at the beack as the Algerian’s desperation grew, Gervinho scoring from a breakaway, calmly stroking a third goal past M’Bolhi after great work from substitute Tallo Gadji of Roma, staking a claim for a starting position in the semi-final. That game will now take place on the 4th of February in Bata against DR Congo, a game they will be expected to win. The scoreline flattered Cote d’Ivoire in the end, Algeria having played some of the best football of the competition, exciting to watch and with pace and skill across the park. Herve Renard himself paid the Desert Warriors the ultimate compliment after the match stating that they were the best team in the competition. Algeria’s own coach Gourcuff was in agreement and had no complaints in his side’s performance, the only regret being the late goal conceded against Ghana in group play. Nevertheless they leave the tournament perhaps having under-achieved, from here the Ivorians will feel this is finally their time, having come through the toughest of the Quarter-Finals, but how many times have we seen them self-destruct from this position.

Quarter Final 3. Ghana v Guinea

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Attention now focused on the Nuevo Estadio de Malabo for the third of the four Quarter-Finals of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. It pitted a David versus Goliath scenario with lowly Guinea taking on giants of the continent, the Ghana Black Stars. Guinea had rode their luck in getting this far, benefiting from the drawing of lots to go through after finishing with an identical record to Mali with three 1-1 draws.  That they were not expected to progress to the semi-finals was an understatement, Ghana finding their feet in the competition after a shaky start. An injury time winner by the enigmatic Asamoah Gyan against Algeria to secure victory had kick-started their campaign after a poor loss to Senegal in the opening game. Expectancy was now high for Avram Grant’s men, less so for The National Elephants of Guinea under the stewardship of Michael Dussuyer who handed Idrissa Sylla a first start in the competition as a lone striker.

But things could hardly have started worse for Guinea, falling behind within four minutes. With barely a touch of the ball, they found themselves chasing Ghanaian shadows as a great move down the left flank culminated with a neat back-hell from Andre Ayew reaching Christian Atsu who side-footed home with ease from six yards. The lead could have doubled only minutes later when Atsu turned provider but his cross was cleared from danger by Fode Camara, with Kwesi Appiah poised to score. The Crystal Palace striker, currently on loan with Cambridge United was not to be denied though when just before half-time he benefited from some defending of a level he will not have experienced even in the fourth tier of English football. The sliced clearance by Baissama Sankoh putting Appiah clean through on goal for his first international goal. Two nil at half-time was flattering to Guinea, who seemed overawed by the occasion and were second best all over the park.

The second half continued in the same vein, Ghana more than comfortable in possession and looking far from the team that opened the tournament against Senegal who seemed content to play long hopeful balls forward for Gyan to chase. There could be no denying the opposition on this occasion was weak, Guinea not able to properly  trouble Razak in the Ghana goal until the 73rd minute when he was unable to hold on to a cross leaving Ibrahima Conte to blast high and wide, summing up Guinea’s evening. This was after the third and final goal of the game, Atsue getting his second with a moment of sheer quality, his strike from the right flank sailing over Yattara into the top corner. Wether it was a cross or a shot, only Atsu will know, but he will know but the Chelsea loanee, currently with Everton will be hoping Jose Mourinho saw that one, a goal to savour for the now fervent Black Star supporters. But the game was to be tarnished, late on in the game with the last actions of the game. Asamoah Gyan was sent through on goal by Ayew, with only Yattara to beat, the Guinea goal-keeper racing off his line and leaving his foot in on the Ghana captain with a horrific challenge. Referee Janny Sikazwe didn’t hesitate to brandish a deserved red card, a waiting game now in progress to see if Gyan will make the semi-final.

A sour note to end a great performance from Ghana who now take on Equatorial Guinea on the 5th of February for a place in the Africa Cup of Nations final. Guinea exit knowing they were outclassed by a better team on the day. Coach Michel Dussuyer falling on his sword making him the second managerial casualty of the competition after Senegal’s Alain Giresse.

Quarter Final 2. Equatorial Guinea v Tunisia

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Following on from one epic Quarter-Final encounter between the two respective Congolese sides, the Estadio de Bata would now see the hosts Equatorial Guinea take on the much-fancied Tunisian Carthage Eagles in what promised to be another nail-biter for the home crowd, up against their strongest opposition yet, but riding on the crest of an unexpected run in a competition they were so nearly not a part of, who would bet against the National Thunder. Both teams come into the match unbeaten with identical records of a win and two draws apiece, but on yet another humid evening in Bata a winner would be found tonight, a winner that would go on to face the winner of Ghana or Guinea in the Semi-Finals.

The crowd would again witness a first half lacking in cutting edge play, much of the first forty five minutes spent with either side unable to keep possession for any length of time resulting in a lack of chances at either end. Tunisia would perhaps be expected to be the more dominant of the sides, if only for their FIFA ranking, 96 places ahead of Equatorial Guinea. But the hosts have shown themselves to be somewhat of a surprise package in recent times, this being their second Quarter-Finals appearances, albeit both on home soil, but their defeat three years ago at this stage to Cote d’Ivoire was still seen as a success. There was very little to separate the sides in this fixture though, Tunisia perhaps showing more quality in their play, Ahmed  Akaichi and Yassine Chikhaoui looking dangerous on occasion as they did throughout group play. And it was Akaichi on hand to score the opening goal of the game in the 70th minute, finishing a quality move with a close range finish, a deserved goal for the Esperance de Tunis striker, having moments earlier forced a fantastic save from goalkeeper Felipe Onovo. The goal was unable to silence the fervent crowd though, a fantastic atmosphere in the Estadio de Bata, spurning their team on to search for an equaliser. It seemed that this was not to be the National Thunders’ night though, Emilio Nsue having a gilt-edged chance brilliantly saved by Aymen Mathlouthi between the Tunisia posts after a sublime through ball from substitute Iban. But deep into stoppage time came an incident of huge controversy, Ivan Bolado going to ground in the Tunisian box, referee Rajindraparsad Seechum of the Seychelles having no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Replays suggested his to be somewhat of a harsh decision, Bolado seeming to step on the foot of defender Ali Maaloul. With the nations hopes and reams resting on his shoulders, Javier Balboa stepped up to equalise without a hint of nerves, sending Mathlouthi the wrong way and ensuring a further thirty minutes of play, the first extra-time period of play in the competition.

The gap in quality of the teams had become less evident as the game wore on, Equatorial Guinea improving as the game went on, more so throughout extra-time, always looking like the side most likely to sneak a winner. The first half of extra time saw them take a deserved lead, Balboa again the scorer, this time with a free-kick worthy of winning any game, showing fantastic technique to get the ball over the wall into the top right hand corner of the goal. It had threatened to happen at the end of the 90 minutes but Tunisia now seemed to lose all composure, discipline becoming an issue and the crisp passing play from earlier in the game now a distant memory as long ball after long ball was punted up the field to no avail. Two one is how it remained and what should have been a remembered as a remarkable evening in Africa Cup of Nations history was sullied by ugly scenes at the final whistle. Security needed to intervene to separate the two sets of players and officials, referee Seechurn also being hounded down the tunnel by Tunisian players, there will surely be a fall-out from what seemed to be unacceptable behaviour regardless of the contentious nature of the penalty given. Now it’s on to the semi-finals for Equatorial Guinea, a side at the start of November were not even scheduled to be playing at the competition and with the run they are on is a first time AFCoN cup final appearance possible, surely a question the players and fans will be asking themselves.

Quarter Final 1. DR Congo v Congo

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Knockout football is here, the business end of the competition started with an African derby, adding spice to am already huge match. Neighbouring Congo and DR Congo faced off in the Estadio de Bata for a place in the semi-finals. With both teams undefeated in the group stages, it promised to be a tense affair in front of another capacity crowd in Bata.

Tense would be one word to describe the opening half but other words would be far more negative as the crowd were treated to a low quality first forty five minutes. Both sides were more than happy to keep possession in their own halves, opposition offering little in the way of pressure it seemed both sides were happy for the game to go to a penalty shoot-out. But how wrong that assumption proved to be, with a polar opposite second half of play. Two completely different sides emerged for the second half it seemed as attacking play was now the order of the day and there would not be long to wait for the opening goal. On 54 minutes, Ferebory Dore ghosted in at the back post unmarked, meeting Delvin N’Dinga’s lofted free-kick, with a neat volley into the roof of the net from six-yards. Worse was to come for DR Congo five minutes later with further indecisive defending, this time from TP Mazembe’s Jean Kasusula who seemed to panic whilst retreating towards his own goal. Dore came close to adding a second from the resulting scramble but his shot was saved by goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba, though Thievy Bifouma was on hand to smash home the rebound. the two goal advantage was to last less than three minutes though, DR Congo scoring through Dieumerci Mbokani after great work from Yannick Bolasie, beating two defenders before finding the Dynamo Kyiv striker in the box for the easiest of finishes. Ten further minutes into the game and the scores were level, DR Congo now on the ascendancy and dominating a match quickly being thrown away Claude Le Roy’s Red Devils. The goal coming from Jeremy Bokila, another Russia based striker, swivelling in the box to rifle home an effort that Congo keeper Mafoumbi could and should have dealt with better.

At 2-2 the DR Congo Leopards sensed victory, pouring forward almost at will, bombarding a shell-shocked Congo side now reeling, unable to cope with Bolaise in particular who’s pace caused no end of problems. There was an air of inevitability for the goal on 80 minutes that put DR Congo in front, Joel Kimwaki heading home from a set-piece, a Cedric Mabwati taken free-kick. Le Roy looked on helplessly as things went from bad to worse for his side, now looking like a broken side having given away a two-goal cushion to be in a losing position with less than ten minutes of the game remaining. There would be worse to come too as DR Congo added insult to injury with a fourth goal in added time when substitute Neeskens Kebano sent through Mbokani through on goal, making sure of his second and DR Congo’s fourth goal and the all important Semi-Final berth.  Questions will be asked of the goals given away by the DR Congo defence, both results of some less than impressive play, but they will be a side riding high on confidence going into the game against either Cote d’Ivoire or Algeria. Congo meanwhile exit the tournament having not won a game and will rue the lead they threw away in this match, collapse perhaps showing the sides lack of experience at this level but a lesson well learnt for the team going forward.

Group D – Guinea v Mali

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Wrapping up proceedings for Group D and the First Round of the competition, in the Estadio de Mongomo would be Mali and Guinea, again both sides with hopes of knockout football in a group unable to be separated at all at time of kick-off. In a group specialising in one-one draws both sides would be keen to secure a victory to avoid the looming possibility of lots being drawn to decide the teams to proceed in the competition.

It took only one minute for the opening chance of the game, Mali coming close to a spectacular goal, Abdoulay Diaby’s effort sailing inched over the bar. After that scare, being caught cold at the start of such an important match, Michel Dussuyer’s Guinea side went about settling themselves, passing neatly with an extended period of possession. Nerves were further settled just before the quarter hour mark when Guinea took the lead from the penalty spot. A clearance from Mali defender Sailf Coulibaly, missed by referee Mohammed Kordi was adjudged to have been via the head and hand, assistant Malik Salifu spotting and flagging the discretion. Kevin Constant, formerly of Milan, stepped up to coolly chip past Mali keeper Germain Berthe, one-nil to the National Elephants and one foot in the Quarter-Finals. The Malian response was instant with Modibo Maiga working well on the left flank before having his deflected shot headed to safety, this time referee Kordi spotting the deflection from the hand of a Guinea defender, another penalty. Up stepped talismanic captain Seydou Keita, who’s uncharacteristically poor spot-kick was dealt with easily by Naby Yattara. Maiga again was at the forefront of the Mali attack, shortly after the half hour mark, Yattara again on hand to tip over the rasping 25 yard shot. But Guinea would see out the half with their one goal lead intact, Mali with it all to do if they wanted a place in the final eight in Equatorial Guinea.

Henryk Kasperczak, the coach of Mali obviously had some wise words for his side in the half-time break, as it took them exactly one minute and twenty seconds of the second half to equalise. Maiga finally getting his reward, heading home from close range, his job made easy by a beautifully lofted cross from Abdoulay Diaby, setting up the very familiar one one scoreline. From here both teams strangely seemed to settle for the draw, a cagey second half resulting in few chances, and a busy evening for the referee with both teams drawing plenty of fouls. The best chance of the half fell to Mustapha Yatabare who’s long range effort was saved well  by Yattara, a hero for Guinea on the night once again. With both teams seemingly resigned to yet another draw, the remainder of the game was played out with both teams keeping men behind the ball and with news of an Ivorian victory filtering through from Malabo the fans and players were left in suspense, in the knowledge that it had now come down to the drawing of lots.

**And so it was, for the first time in Africa Cup of Nations history since 1988, when Algeria benefited at the expense of Cote d’Ivoire, lots were drawn to decide if Guinea or Mali would join the Ivorians in the last 8, from Group D. It was Guinea drawn on the day, seeing them through to the Quarter-Finals where they will face a resurgent Ghana side. Mali can consider themselves the unluckiest of the sides leaving Equatorial Guinea after the group stage and will perhaps be the last team to exit in this manner. Managers of both sides agreed that the drawing of lots is an unfair method of elimination and now the onus is on the Confederation of African Football to decide on a more suitable process.

Group D – Cote d’Ivoire v Cameroon

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The final games in Group D found all teams on equal points, nothing separating all four times due to all games so far finishing 1-1. With the very real danger of qualification being done by drawing lots, the onus was on either side to force a victory and a place in the knockout stages. The Nuevo Estadio de Malabo was once again full to capacity to see two of the African heavyweights battle it out in effectively, a sudden death match up.

The Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire started the game well, Herve Renard’s men disappointing in the tournament up until now, unable to live up to the growing expectations of a star-studded team. One of the stars, new Manchester City man, Wilfried Bony was on hand to test Cameroon goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa after five minutes of play. A surging run by right-back Serge Aurier opened up the Cameroon defence, crossing for Bony who’s effort using his knee was saved well. FC Zurich’s Franck Etoundi was next with an effort on goal, the Cameroonian striker’s header flying over the bar, when perhaps he should have at least tested the goal-keeper. Further chances were created by both sides, an entertaining game unfolding for the partisan crowd, neither side able to gain a foothold on the match. It took a moment of magic to separate the sides though, just after the half hour mark. Cameroon’s Jerome Guihoata was at fault, losing the ball clunsily to Max Gradel and his blushes were not spared by the St Etienne man, who smashed a 25 yard effort past Ondoa, beating him on his inside post for another contender for goal of the tournament. Would this spark the Ivorians into life, the world has been waiting for the Elephants to produce a stand out performance in Equatorial Guinea but so far had been disappointed. Yaya Toure, so influential for club team Manchester City in the English Premiership has also failed to shine, looking subdued and far below his best. The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon did not let their heads drop though, again forcing a good save from Sylvain Gbohouo after Stephen Mbia threaded through an impeccable ball to Edgar Salli. Salli would again come close, just before the half-time whistle, this time after great work from Benjamin Moukandjo but blazed high over the bar from 10 yards out, a bad miss from the on-loan Monaco player.

The start of the second half saw a lull in proceedings, both teams seeming to catch their breath, the Ivorians now happy to concede possession in the knowledge that a win would see them through. Once again, Bony was to show his strength on the hour mark, latching on to a long ball, bustling his way past Nicolas N’Koulou before having his shot saved. With the clock ticking, Cameroon committed players forward looking for the elusive goal that would possibly keep them in the competition. With ten minutes remaining their best chance of the half fell to Aboubkar, but substitute defender Ousumane Viera was on hand to block his shot, the Ivorian defence resolute in the face of a Cameroon onslaught. And hold out they did, a last minute effort from Aboubkar sailing high over the bar summing up Cameroon’s evening. The final score 1-0 to the Ivory Coast who themselves have worries going into the Quarter-Finals with captain Yaya Toure limping off after 80 minutes with what looked like a possible injury. For Cameroon, they become one of the big name casualties of the 2015 tournament, adding to the disappointment of a shambolic performance at the Brazil World Cup. Herve Renard’s men will now face Algeria in what looks to be the pick of the Quarter-Final matches on the February 1st.

Group C – Algeria v Senegal

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Group C’s final fixtures were rounded off with a strong Algerian side taking on Senegal, both teams capable of going through to the next round, depending on the result in the Ghana v South Africa match. Algeria came into the match smarting from an injury time conceded goal to Ghana, the deciding goal in the 1-0 loss. That had come after a convincing 3-1 victory over South Africa. Senegal on the other hand had beaten Ghana and ground out a draw with Bafana Bafana. Taking place in the Nuevo Estadio de Malabo both teams knew victory would see them through so an attacking open game was expected by the capacity crowd.

Merely two minutes into the game, Algeria should have been ahead thanks to some woeful Senegalese defending, Sofiane Feghouli’s touch when through on goal similarly poor, but a let-off for the Lions of Teranga nonetheless. On the ten minute mark though, some equally shocking defending was once again on display, Stephane Badji caught napping from an Algerian free-kick, leaving Leicester City Riyad Mahrez in acres of space with all the time in the world to slot past Bouna Coundoul in the Senegal goal. So an uphill task for Alain Giresse’s men with a competition exit looming they struggled to impose themselves on the game throughout the first half, limited to long range efforts, Algerian keeper M’Bholi uncharacteristically spilling an effort from Sadio Mane shortly before half-time.

The second half brought somewhat of a lull in proceedings, both teams creating very little in terms of clear cut chances, Algeria more confident in possession with Nabil Bentaleb and Sephair Taider impressing in the Desert Warriors midfield. Neither side troubled the opposition goal keeper until the final quarter though, Algeria then stepping up a gear and turning the screw on a tiring Senegal team. First Saphir Taider had a chance cleared off the line by Kara Mbodj but the respite was temporary as minutes later Nabil Bentaleb received a pass on the edge of he box from Feghouli before hammering home an absolute stunner. At 2-0 down further salt was rubbed into Senegalese wounds when news filtered through that Ghana had gone ahead in their match with South Africa. At 1-1 Senegal were still on track for a place in the Quarter-Finals but Andre Ayew’s headed winner broke Senegal as well as South African hearts.

Defensively, Senegal had disappointed again and in the end proved to be their undoing. Algeria, by far the stronger team on the night progress to a mouth-watering clash with the winners of Group D and will fancy their chances regardless of who they face on the 1st of January. Senegal coach Giresse, now at the end of his tenure admitted his side had underperformed and had not met expectations in the tournament. For the fans, disappointment continues as they look ahead to Lybia in two years time for a chance to lose the tag of underperforming super-pwer of the continent, the attacking riches they possess surely now need to be complemented with a more experienced back four. Time will tell if they can achieve this, whereas only days remain before we find out if an improving and exciting Algerian team can win again to grab a se-final spot at AFoN 2015.