Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Fri 1 February 2008

African Cup of Nations: Round-up #3

It's back to our African Cup of Nations update service now as we tell you how each of the sixteen competing nations faired in their last group games this week.

This was the critical stage of the tournament for many teams as a win or loss could determine whether they'd stay on for the knockout stages or catch a flight home to watch the knockout stages on TV. Here's what happened…

Group A
As you may remember from our last round-up, Morocco were hanging on grimly for the second qualification spot in the group but had to at least draw against Ghana in their last game to secure it. Ghana had already qualified, but that was no guarantee that they'd treat the Moroccans lightly.

Guinea, however, had the same sort of predicament but they faced lowly Namibia in their quest to go through. The smart money was on Guinea, but who would prevail?

In the end, Ghana proved no match for Morocco who lacked the quality or even desire to remain in the contest. A 2-0 win for the Ghanaians, including goals by Chelsea's Michael Essien and Portsmouth's Sulley Muntari, meant they finished the first round at the top of Group A with a maximum nine points.

All Guinea had to do was get a draw against a Namibia side that had fought valiantly up to that point but were yet move off the bottom of the table. Guinea dominated Monday's game, launching wave after wave of attacks on the Namibian goal, but neither team could find the net until the 62nd minute when Souleymane Youla put Guinea 1-0 up.

Namibia looked unlikely to find an answer to that, but Guinea settled into their comfort zone a little too much for their own good and allowed Brian Brendell to take on the opposition defence and score a fine individual goal with just nine minutes remaining. It proved to be the decisive equaliser for Namibia and the last goal of the game.

Guinea had held on for the draw they needed and leap-frogged Morocco into second place in the group. Morocco and Namibia finished third and fourth respectively with the former continuing their recent downward spiral into mediocrity.

Group B
If any team had to win their last match, it was Nigeria. They found themselves in third place of Group B after a couple of miserable performances that brought them just one point. Failing to reach the knock-out stages was inconceivable, unlikely, even, and standing in their way was plucky Benin.

Victory over The Squirrels would ensure Nigeria had done their share of the deal, but they'd also be hoping that second-placed Mali would be beaten by group leaders, Ivory Coast. Without that, Nigeria would be doomed to failure.

They needn't have worried. Benin struggled to contain Nigeria yet amazingly held on for almost an hour before Chelsea's John Obi Mikel headed the Super Eagles into a 1-0 lead. It gave Nigeria the confidence to play a far more composed style of football and it stood them in good stead all the way through to the 86th minute when Yakubu calmly put the ball past Benin goalkeeper Amoussou to wrap the game up at 2-0.

It was to be Nigeria's day. In the other Group B game in Accra, Ivory Coast did anything but rest on their laurels despite knowing they'd already qualified for the quarter-finals. Against a Mali side that would have settled for a draw, The Elephants were professional to the last as they snuffed out any hopes of their opponents doing just that.

Didier Drogba finally sprang into life in this tournament by scoring the opening goal on 9 minutes before Zoro (standing in for the injured Kolo Toure) added another early in the second half after many a missed effort from his teammates. By this stage, Mali's only hope of scoring goals, Fredi Kanoute, had been substituted but Dramane Traore almost scored when his header came back off the Ivory Coast bar.

With news coming through of Nigeria's lead against Benin, Mali had to go on the attack to find goals fast, but it only succeeded in providing Drogba's side with an open defence to penetrate for a third goal which was scored by Sanogo. Mali had lost their chance and were out of the competition, their place taken by a Nigeria side that had left it incredibly late to show willing. Though they may be through to the quarter finals, I'm still not convinced by their uninspiring performances.

Group C
Cameroon still had work to do on Wednesday. They were in direct competition with Zambia for the second qualifying spot behind Egypt who were already through, but Zambia had to play the Egyptians and ideally win if they were to deny Cameroon.

Zambia's start to their match couldn't have been worse. Within 14 minutes, Amr Zaki had put Egypt 1-0 up and the Zambians could have been forgiven for letting their heads drop. Admirably enough, they didn't - in fact they turned on their heals and showed the Egyptians they'd have a fight on their hands.

Egypt opted to deny Zambia the space to play the game the way they wanted and played a counter-attacking style of their own that should have brought many goals. Sadly for them, their attacks proved largely ineffective and Zambia were glad for that ineptness when with two minutes of the whole game left, captain Katongo skilfully put the ball into the net to equalise. Would the draw be enough? Cameroon had the answer.

In Sudan, Cameroon's opponents were ill-equipped and lacking the experience to deal with a team full of star players, so it was no surprise when the Indomitable Lions came out of the traps first. A 1-0 lead came about in the 27th minute when Samuel Eto'o scored from a penalty and in so doing claimed the all-time record as the highest scorer in the African Cup of Nations.

Six minutes later, an own goal from Ali Elkhidir put Cameroon 2-0 up and from then on there was no going back. Sudan had little to offer in return except for the occasional isolated and dangerous attack, so when Eto'o picked up his second of the game and Cameroon's third in stoppage time, their was no doubt they were through to the quarter finals. The game ended 3-0 and that meant Zambia were out, finishing in third place in the group, two points behind Cameroon.

Group D
Finally a group that almost didn't need to play its last two games, such was the way its teams were progressing. Going into yesterday's showdown, Tunisia and Angola were easily looking the more accomplished of the four teams while Senegal had been below-par and South Africa were predictably poor. As it turned out, Tunisia and Angola would play each other knowing a draw would suit both sides, while Senegal and South Africa would have to fight tooth and nail for even the merest hint of a chance to qualify from the group.

Without wishing to deny you the fine detail from both games, Tunisia and Angola did settle for a draw (and a goalless one at that) while Senegal and South Africa cancelled each other out in a 1-1 draw.

It means Angola reach the quarter finals for the first time ever and deservedly so after playing some good attacking football while Tunisia looked capable and dangerous in their three games. For South Africa, one can only begin to wonder what sort of transformation they'll need to undertake after many years of steady decline if they're to avoid bombing out of their own World Cup Finals at the first hurdle in two years' time.

And that was the First Round, folks. We've seen some great goals scored already and have a better idea of who might lift the trophy in just over a week. Before that though, we must consider the quarter-final line-up, and here it is:

February 3 2008
Ghana v Nigeria (Accra)
Ivory Coast v Guinea (Sekondi)

February 4 2008
Tunisia v Cameroon (Tamale)
Egypt v Angola (Kumasi)

Join us for a round-up of the action from those four games very soon.

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