The first round of games in AFCON 2017 were generally neither sparkling nor very dull. Some matches were very exciting – take the Algeria- Zimbabwe’s four-goal haul – and others were utter dross.
There were 12 goals scored, from 11 different goal-scorers and just one red card issued – DRC’s Joyce Lomalisa had that dubious honour after a horrible tackle.
Star men came to fore
It’s always great when the pre-tournament super stars show up. Things get easier for the narrators, and this time Algeria, Gabon, Ghana, and Senegal provided some of them.
No player in Africa Cup of Nations history has scored the opening goal for his country more times than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, having done so in 2012, 2015 and 2017. He also scored the opening goal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The Gabon star, together with Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez, Ghana’s Andre Ayew and Senegal’s Sadio Mane were all shortlisted in the top five for the CAF Player of the Year awards last year – and they all have scored. The supporting team casts in all cases have not been as consistent, but the key nature of these men’s goals means we can look out for more.
Not a player to have made the pre-tournament preview reels but Zezinho lived up to the billing as a key man to watch for Guinea Bissau. He was captain of the day as the usual occupant Bocundj Ca was surprisingly benched. At just 25, Zezinho is the next most experienced player for the side.
And he dictated the play against an (increasingly, as the game progressed) lacklustre Gabon.
Others did not score, such as Mehdi Benatia and his teammate Mbark Bossoufa, but they’ve shone in their positions. More of such, please…
Tunisia dominated their encounter with Senegal but suffered the first defeat of the competition. The lack of players who could grab games by the scruff was evident in the North Africans’ play, and the Teranga Lions’ better game management won the day.
That said, the West Africans’ themselves could have serious issues going forward if Senegal’s ropey defense is not sorted out.
Cedric Bakambu, thought to be one to watch for DR Congo, was totally off colour. An argument could be made that he was not fed the ball in position he wanted, but the Villareal hotshot’s demeanour when he was subbed for Dieumerci Mbokani said it all.
Uganda are returning to the competition after 39 years out, and recent history against Ghana suggested they would shut the Black Stars down. In the end, the Cranes coach blamed the size of the occasion for a 1-0 loss. “We haven’t been here for 39 years. In the first half. We had what I call stage fright. We committed a mistake that I cannot explain and Ayew scored,” Milutin Sredojevic said.
Togo were not expected to give defending champions Ivory Coast such a tough time, but they did and Claude LeRoy’s men got a creditable draw. Tactically, the gaffer’s decision to use Serge Gakpe (usually a striker) at right back, has received rave reviews in the Togolese media, since. Emmanuel Adebayor, clubless, also played decently well.
What a way for Zimbabwe to return to the AFCON since 2006! A swashbuckling display jolted Algeria, heavily favoured in the pre-game odds to destroy their less storied southern African opposition. It took some star dust from Mahrez to ensure the headlines read “Algeria snatch point from Zimbabwe” rather than “Zimbabwe upset Algeria with draw”.
The Warriors’ boss Callisto Pasuwa’s declaration that “Zimbabwe did not come here to just add to the numbers” and Georges Leekens admonishment of “ensuring no one underestimates the so-called underdogs, Zimbabwe” seemed to have been right on the money.
But it was Guinea Bissau, however, who started the surprises this tournament. With a population of just 1.7 million people, their first Nations Cup has started off well, with a shock last minute goal silencing the partisan crowd in Libreville. Good for them!
And then, Cameroon.
This AFCON saw the usually big hitting side come with very average players, partly forced by the withdrawal of up to eight regulars before coach Hugo Broos could name his 23-man squad.
But they played some delectable football in the first half, particularly Georges Mandjeck and Sebastian Siani, with Christian Bassogog and Clinton N’jie proving we could expect more good performances in their coming games with Gabon and Burkina Faso.
The young turks in goal
The AFCON tournament is given an unfair amount of stick by observers for its goalkeeping. In fact, African football in general seems to have the negative tag. But what can we say about the quality youth coming through for Burkina Faso and Cameroon?
The save of the tournament so far came from the Stallions’ 20-year old Herve Koffi. The crucial, sweeping save he made when Bassogog beat his defence belied his years and status as the youngest in the team, but why are we shocked?
By the end of November 2016 Koffi had conceded just five goals in 17 games for ASEC and is easily among the top three goalkeepers to watch in West Africa. Another in that top three is the man who was on the opposing end of their Group A opener on Saturday, Fabrice Ondoa.
Cameroon’s rich history of producing ‘keepers seems in safe hands as the 21-year old, too, acquitted himself in that thoroughly entertaining game.
And then came along Tatena Mkuruva for Zimbabwe to make a case for southern African talent as well. At 20, the Dynamos ‘keeper had task of stifling attacks from the potent attack of Mahrez, Yacine Brahimi, Islam Slimani and El Arbi Soudani. And he did, despite conceding twice.
Should CAF consider water breaks due to humidity?
Even before kickoff of every single game, it’s been clear that the humidity at the four venues in Gabon has been telling. Some teams, notably Cameroon and Senegal, seemed to absolutely collaps midway in their second half encounters.
Humidity has been a constant 90-93% throughout Libreville, Oyem, Port Gentil and Franceville in the opening days and it has become clear that winning this AFCON won’t be down to skill alone. Scientific management of temperature and hydration will play a big part.
Time for water breaks?
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