Senegal crash out as Angola keep it tight
Group CAfter bursting out of the blocks against Cameroon, it was perhaps unsurprising that Egypt would be unable to maintain their torrid pace. However, though the overall level of their play dropped, by winning their first match against their main rival, the defending champions not only sent a reminder of their capabilities but also, more crucially, positioned themselves to control the group.
The display of Mohamed Zidan against Cameroon was among the best by an individual in the opening round of matches. With Mido back in Middlesbrough, Pharaohs coach, Hassan Shetaha, thrust a player he once refused to pick into the limelight and was rewarded with two well-taken goals.
Leading the supporting cast for Egypt was Hosny Abd Rabo, whose nerveless penalties against Cameroon and then Sudan provided Egypt with a lead in each of their first two matches. He currently plays in his home country but, based on his form over the past two weeks, the 23-year-old midfielder, who previously had a spell with Strasbourg in France, may soon again be attracting interest from European clubs.
Shetaha coaches a squad that is among the strongest in the tournament, further evidence of which came against Sudan. Mohamed Aboutreika may be known as 'The Magician' but it was his coach that pulled a rabbit out of the hat by introducing the midfielder just short of the hour mark. Two goals later, both men were basking in the glory of adding another chapter to his impressive reputation.
Against Zambia, it was a positive that another striker, Amr Zaki, found the net, especially given that, after his outstanding start, Zidan has cooled off. However, although Egypt created chances aplenty, a final score of 1-1 indicates a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal that needs to be addressed before the knockout stages.
Furthermore, though Shetaha's preferred formation of 3-5-2, which is predicated on soaking up pressure and hitting opponents on the break, is a tactic that has worked so far, but there needs to be a plan B that forces the game a little more, should Egypt fall behind.
For five straight Cup of Nations tournaments, Cameroon have emerged from the group stage on top of their pool's standings. Thus, in the aftermath of their shellacking in their oepning match this year, the once-Indomitable Lions were wounded animals.
However, in the aftermath of that defeat to the Pharaohs, Otto Pfister's side found their hunger and the subsequent feast served up by Cameroon has reestablished them as a legitimate contender to be king of the of the African football jungle. Cameroon's turnaround in form saw them end the group stage playing excellent football.
The catalyst for the upturn in fortunes has undoubtedly been Samuel Eto'o, whose five goals make him the tournament's top scorer, both this year and all-time. Joseph Desire-Job and Achille Emana have played supporting roles, but it is difficult to think of a team in the last sixteen more dependant on one player than Cameroon are on the Barcelona superstar.
Looking ahead, Cameroon's open style, which contributed to a combined fifteen goals being scored in their three games, may not be conducive to the more disciplined, tactical play that is traditionally associated with the knockout stages of a tournament. However, Tunisia will hold little fear for them.
Assuming Pfister settles the indignation he has at his team's conditions in Ghana and provided Cameroon can tighten up a little at the back without sacrificing that attacking flair, Eto'o et al have a chance to make an impact at the business end of the tournament.
In much the same way that Morocco faded after a promising start in Group B, so it was that Zambia failed to build on an emphatic initial result. In truth, the 3-0 win over Sudan flattered the Chipolopolo a little but the fact was that, with three points in the bag and confidence high, Patrick Phiri's side were unable to kick on and get the second win they needed to advance.
Running into a Cameroon side that was more desperate for victory than were they was a tough match-up for Zambia in their second game and the 5-1 mauling they were dealt by the Indomitable Lions meant that nothing less than victory against Egypt would be likely to secure a quarter-final spot. Having fallen behind, Chris Katongo's late equaliser led to a brief flurry but to no avail for the Copper Bullets.
Of all the teams in this year's Cup of Nations, Sudan made the least impression, to the extent that the Desert Hawks' campaign will best be remembered not even for anything they did on the field, where they fell to three straight 3-0 defeats. The lack of fight they had there was in contrast to their readiness for a scrap with the gentlemen of the Egyptian media prior to their match against the Pharoahs.
Group DTunisia won Group D on goals scored, but the Eagles of Carthage can count themselves fortunate to have qualified ahead of Angola, Senegal and South Africa, following a group campaign in which they turned in just one convincing display.
As much as anything, Tunisia benefited from their schedule. After escaping with a point from their opening game against Senegal, thanks to an outstanding goal by Medji Traoui, Tunisia arguably secured first place with their win over South Africa.
That result, coupled with Angola's win over Senegal, meant that the final round's match between the group's two unbeatens was little more than an exhibition. Though there were chances for each side in Tamale, the goalless draw came as no surprise.
Though Cameroon will be favourites in the sides' last eight encounter, Roger Lemerre's wily experience does make Tunisia impossible to count out. The Frenchman took the helm in 2002, having led his home country to the 2000 European Championship title. In 2004, he worked his magic again as coach of the Cup of Nations' host nation, guiding Tunisia to their first ever title with knockout stage wins over Senegal, Nigeria and Mali.
In contrast to Tunisia's recent successes, Angola's appearance in the quarterfinals will mark the first time the Black Antelopes have reached the last eight, an achievement they fully deserve following their group displays.
After being pegged back by South Africa, Angola's hopes for advancement looked to be fading as they headed into half-time against Senegal a goal behind. Fifteen minutes later, however, they embarked on a second half that was arguably the best 45 minutes played by any side in the group stages.
Galvanised by new Manchester United signing, Manucho, and Flavio, who impressed at the 2006 Cup of Nations with three of Angola's four goals, the Black Antelopes' relied on aerial dominance and impressive physical attributes against which Senegal had no answer.
Angola's quarter-final with Egypt could be a favorable one for Luis Oliveira Goncalves' men. Though it is their attacking play that has caught the eye, Angola has a defence that has been among the tightest in the tournament. Should the backline continue its efficient form, Egypt could be in for a long day. Set pieces could be a vital factor.
Player for player, Senegal looked to be the group's strongest side at its outset. However, one breakdown after another on the field, as well disciplinary problems off it, doomed a country that ended their Cup of Nations campaign with a different coach to that with which it began.
It started well enough. Against Tunisia, Senegal showed backbone to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 advantage as the final ten minutes began. However, as Medji Traoui's rocket flew into Tony Sylva's net, Senegal were left to rue the chances they had missed to extend their advantage.
It was a similar story against Angola as a lead was surrendered. Finally, falling a goal behind in a must-win game versus South Africa made the task for Senegal to pick up a win even harder. Given what had gone before, it was no surprise that nothing more than an equaliser was forthcoming.
Coaching Senegal in their final match was Lamine Ndiaye, who stepped into the breach after Henri Kasperczak resigned following the Angola defeat. The difficult task of the stand-in to prepare his side was made even harder by irresponsible behaviour from some key players.
Less than 48 hours before their final match, a trio of Senegal stars prepared for the crunch match by sampling the delights of a Kumasi nightspot. Among the guilty were El-Hadji Diouf - no stranger to lapses in judgment - and Sylva, a goalkeeper whose performance against Angola may have resulted in his omission in any case. This messy episode was an apt way for a disappointing campaign to end.
From the moment Carlos Alberto Parreira picked South Africa's squad for the tournament, the prospects of the 1996 champions regaining the trophy looked distant. So it was that, despite some encouraging signs, Bafana proved to be the weakest of Group D's teams.
South Africa's third match was a microcosm of their tournament as a whole. After taking the lead through a well-worked goal by the impressive Elrio van Heerden, Bafana relinquished the advantage in sloppy circumstances. Failure to close down in midfield led to a through ball that Aaron Mokoena inexplicably tried to clear with a flying kick.
Henri Camara did the rest and, in doing so, gave a further reminder to Parreira of the work he has to do ahead of the 2010 World Cup. Nevertheless, the Brazilian coach claimed that, results notwithstanding, he had been pleased by some of what he had seen. The reintroduction of Benni McCarthy to the fold will further assist South Africa.
As the hosts of the next World Cup work on their long-term plan, eight sides remain hopeful of winning the 2008 African Cup of Nations. Some would seem to have a better chance than others but, as an exciting group stage that featured 70 goals (and just one red card) in sixteen matches showed, anything can, and probably will, happen.