Sadio Mane misses crucial penalty as Senegal crash out vs. Cameroon
FRANCEVILLE, Gabon -- Three points from a gripping African Nations Cup quarterfinal as Cameroon knocked out one of the tournament favourites, Senegal, on penalties after a 0-0 stalemate in extra time ...
1. Mane heartbreak as Senegal crash out
The script wasn't written like this, was it? Senegal and Cameroon had failed to break the deadlock during 120 minutes of an absorbing Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinal when, after eight clinically converted penalties, up stepped their talisman: Liverpool's Sadio Mane.
Perhaps Senegal's complaints over the stop-start run-up by Jacques Zoua, Cameroon's previous taker, had distracted him; Mane's penalty was at a good height for the Cameroon goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa, who saved superbly to his right, and it was left to Vincent Aboubakar to thump his spot-kick home and give the Indomitable Lions a stunning victory. They will face either DR Congo or Ghana in the semifinals on Wednesday.
It was somewhat cruel for Senegal, who'd dominated the game's early stages. After 20 minutes, excellent work by Lazio winger Keita Balde resulted in a half-cleared cross that Cheikhou Kouyate could only nod over the bar with Ondoa stranded. Seven minutes later, an astute chest-down from Mane put Mame Biram Diouf clear inside the box. He attempted a lofted finish as Ondoa advanced but shot too high when he should have done better.
At that stage it was one-way traffic, but Cameroon grew into game and created some half-chances of their own through captain Benjamin Moukandjo. There was a sense that Senegal's early pace was unsustainable, but they created an early second-half chance for Kouyate: after Kara Mbodji had knocked a deep free kick across goal, the West Ham forward headed over from another good position. They came closer still when Mane, dashing to the byline, clipped over a cross that Balde met with his forehead at the far post. Making himself big, Ondoa was able to paw the ball up into the air: another superb save.
That save made it feel like a quarterfinal and, at the other end, Kalidou Koulibaly had to make a superb tackle to deny the countering Cameroon winger, Christian Bassogog. In the 66th minute Moukandjo threatened, drawing a sharp save from Abdoulaye Diallo, but the best chances of avoiding an extra 30 minutes came toward the end of the 90.
Four minutes from time, Mane dragged wide with his left foot after Ondoa could only parry from Idrissa Gueye. Then substitute Moussa Sow diverted a Balde cross over from a fine position before seeing an injury-time effort spilled by a fortunate Ondoa.
Midway through an otherwise cagey extra-time period, Cameroon substitute Jacques Zoua, clear on the left of the box, seemed certain to score, but Diallo saved Senegal with a brilliant stop of his own. It would not matter; Zoua would put things right in the shootout, and minutes later, Cameroon could celebrate in delirious style.
2. Senegal's striker woes laid bare
Would Senegal be the continent's best side if they had a top-class striker? It might be an academic question now, and one that could be asked of a few other sides in Gabon, but their profligacy denied them a last-four spot.
The warning signs had been there earlier in the tournament. Mame Biram Diouf missed a number of chances during the group stage, especially in what should have been a rout of Zimbabwe, and the Stoke City forward's selection to lead the line against Cameroon didn't speak too well of Aliou Cisse's options. He is mobile and hardworking but lacks the instinctive quality of their other senior front men and was wasteful again here.
If the header early in the second half, saved by the promising Ondoa, was a miss matched by excellent goalkeeping, then that chance before the break, cutely set up by Mane, required a far cooler head. It was little surprise to see him replaced by Sow, who is less athletic but in theory a much more reliable finisher; it highlighted the kind of dilemma that Cisse does not really face elsewhere in a well-balanced team.
Sow didn't fare too much better, missing badly as extra time neared after excellent work from Balde (Senegal's most exciting attacker on the night) and passing up a half-chance with the last action of the 120 minutes.
The complaint about Senegal at the 2015 Cup of Nations was that they were too top-heavy with attacking options and lacked craft behind them. This time the speed and movement of Mane and Balde, coupled with the prompting of Saivet and the bursts of Kouyate, give them a number of possible dimensions, but their lack of an obvious target man is glaring.
Perhaps Mane, or one of Senegal's other Premier League stars, could have stepped up in general play, but the overall sense was that the Teranga Lions may have been a centre-forward short of their first continental title.
3. Broos, Cameroon deserve immense credit
What an achievement this was for Hugo Broos' Cameroon, who were unfancied when this tournament began but showed a steeliness and composure few could have expected in reaching their first semifinal since 2008 and spark pure joy among their sizable support.
Although this was framed as a clash of two giants, there had been a nagging worry beforehand that it might be anything but. Senegal's wealth of top-level experience justified their billing, but Cameroon, fielding an inexperienced squad at this level after several players (including Liverpool's Joel Matip) ruled themselves out of selection, looked clear outsiders when the team sheets were compared.
That makes this performance all the more laudable, and their Belgian coach Broos -- himself a relative novice in international football -- deserves credit for his team's application.
Cameroon set out defensively, leaving nine outfield players behind the ball at times during the first half, but grew in confidence after withstanding Senegal's early domination. Barring a rocky five-minute spell at either end of the second half, they more than held their own thereafter; the impressive Bassogog proved a constant threat down the right, and a midfield marshalled by Sebastien Siani, one of the star turns in his position over the past fortnight, stood toe to toe with Kouyate and Gueye.
As time drew on it seemed that Cameroon, quick to the ball and increasingly eager to commit men forward on the break, had the edge in fitness over their opponents. They stretched Senegal repeatedly and could have created more clear chances than the one Zoua spurned.
In the end, though, they saved their calm for when it mattered and will now feel that they can go all the way.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.