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.