Egypt capped off a triumphant return to the Africa Cup of Nations after seven years away. Thanks to Mohamed Salah’s wonderful free kick, they saw off one of the pre-tournament favourites 1-0 in Port-Gentil to secure their place at the top of Group D. It was an uneventful match but the Egyptian faithful won’t mind that one bit. They march on to face Morocco while Ghana face a tricky test against DR Congo.
Going into today, Group D had been a group deprived of goalmouth action, just four goals were scored in the first four matches. However, both teams went into the game on the back of two impressive results in their previous matches. Ghana scraped past Uganda and Mali 1-0 in their opening two matches, meaning they went into tonight’s match having already qualified. Egypt were also in a good place but were not secure by any means. They drew their crucial opening match with Mali before beating Uganda, they went into the game three points clear of Mali, however, Mali had the favourable tie, they took on Uganda while Egypt would have to face tournament heavyweights Ghana. Egypt knew a point would secure their qualification but if they were to lose, all it would take was a Mali victory and a two-goal swing to see the seven-time champions knocked out early on their return to the competition.
It was obvious from the team selection that Ghana were not content with just their qualification, the presence of Christian Atsu, Andre Ayew and Asamoah Gyan suggested they were going all out to win the group. This was, in fact, Gyan’s 100th cap for his country and he went into the game just one shy of 50 goals for his country. There was also an international debut for Barnsley’s Andy Yiadom. Unfortunately, though, they would have to do without Baba-Rahman, whose tournament and season was sadly ended in their last outing against Mali due to an ACL injury blamed on the poor quality of the pitch. As for Egypt, Hull City right-back Ahmed Elmohamady came in for his first appearance of the tournament in place of the injured Mohamed Shafy and record-breaking 44-year-old Essam El Hadary continued in goal for the Pharaohs, making his 150th cap for his country.
The game started off in cagey fashion with both teams not willing to commit too much too early and risk going behind. The ball was in the middle of the park for most of the opening stages but in the 10th minute, John Boye committed a foul on the edge of his own box. This gave Mohamed Salah the chance to have an effort at goal. He stepped up and bulleted the ball into the top right-hand corner, the net was bulging before Razak in the Ghana goal could even react. As things stood, Egypt were heading top of the group.
As had been often been the case in this tournament, the team that has taken the lead, this time Egypt, chose to sit back and invite pressure. Straight after the goal, Ghana began to dominate possession and were knocking it around at ease. However, Razak was too casual towards the end of the half, while on the edge of his own area, he played a sloppy pass straight to Marwan Mohsen, he tried to work the space to get a shot away at the open goal but, on the edge of the area, he could only shoot over, a let-off for Ghana.
Things then took a turn for the worse for the Ghanaians. While chasing a ball, Asamoah Gyan appeared to pull up with a groin/hamstring problem. He was forced to limp off a few minutes later and judging by the facial expressions on the Ghanaian bench, his prospects of appearing in the remainder of the tournament are not good. A cruel way to end his 100th appearance for his country and a massive blow for his country, losing their record goalscorer. He was replaced by Jordan Ayew.
Right towards the end of the half, Ghana finally made their possession pay and created a chance. They won a free-kick high up the pitch. Christian Atsu then placed the ball straight onto the head of Leicester man Daniel Amartey but he could only head just over the upright. He had a clear run and jump to meet the ball and he perhaps should have done better. This was the last chance of the half and as a result, Egypt went into the break leading and topping the group as things stood. Ghana had most of the ball but couldn’t create any meaningful chances from open play.
In the other match, the score was tied at 0-0 at halftime, however, due to Egypt’s lead, the result was meaningless. Only a Ghana win would present Mali with a chance to overtake Egypt and qualify from the group.
Clear cut chances weren’t any more regular at the start of the second half. As the game went on, the pitch began to affect the game more and more. The pitch at the Stade de Port-Gentil was not in good condition and the ball was bobbling around. Pacy, skilful players such as Atsu were suffering most of all. Ghana’s most dangerous attack since the restart came from Atsu, who picked up the ball and drove at the Egyptian backline, beating three men. However, he was dispossessed after a horrible bobble saw the ball bounce up almost to his knee and prevented him from playing the ball through to his onrushing teammate.
As such, the best chances were coming from long range. Emmanuel Badu stung the palms of El Hadary in the 68th minute from about 30-yards out, however, the veteran goalkeeper did well to scoop the ball away to the side to be cleared rather than parrying it back into the danger area.
The news then filtered through that Uganda had taken the lead in the group’s other match thanks to a magnificent long-range strike from Farouk Miya. This was music to the ears of Egypt fans as Mali would have to score twice to even stand a chance of knocking them out.
The game then continued to pass by without incident and both managers looked to the bench. Bernard Tekpetey and Mubarak Wakaso were introduced for Ghana in place of Samuel Tetteh and Emmanuel Badu. For Egypt, forwards Kahraba and Amr Wada were introduced.
More news from Oyem, Mali had equalised with a spectacular effort of their own thanks to Yves Bissouma. If Ghana could grab an equaliser, things would start to get very nervy in the Egyptian camp. However, the Ghanaian fans were deprived of anything to cheer until the 89th minute. The ball fell to Jordan Ayew, he executed a great chop-back beating Hegazi, he shot for goal but his effort was well tipped around the post by El Hadary.
The uneventful spectacle, rather ruined by the pitch as it was almost impossible to run with the ball, came to a close with Egypt taking the victory and top spot in the group as a result. The result sees them set up a quarter-final clash with Herve Renard’s Morocco. They are clearly in the favourable side of the draw too as the winner will face either Burkina Faso or Tunisia. Whereas, Ghana will face an in-form DR Congo side and the winner likely face tournament favourites, Senegal, assuming they get past Cameroon. The importance of winning your group in these kinds of tournaments has again been demonstrated. Avram Grant will be disappointed with his side for taking their eyes off the ball and allowing Egypt to pip them. Throughout the game, Egypt were happy to let Ghana have the ball and Grant will be disappointed that his side could not take advantage.
Uganda and Mali finished 1-1 so only three more goals were added to the group’s tally, taking it to a dreary seven goals in six matches and incredibly, Egypt have won the group despite scoring only two goals. However, they haven’t conceded either, the only team to do so, this will give them confidence moving into the knockout stages.
The group stage is now over and there has certainly been some shocks along the way but Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Tunisia, DR Congo, Morocco, Egypt and Ghana have managed to find their way through and will battle it out for a place in the semi-finals over the weekend and we will be back with you then.
Egypt: El Hadary; Elmohamady, Gabr, Hegazy, Fathi; Elneny, Hamed, Salah, El Said (Amr Wada sub 76), Trezeguet; Mohsen (Kahraba sub 69)
Ghana: Razak; Yiadom, Boye, Mensah, Afful; Amartey, Atsu, Badu (Wakaso sub 80), Andre Ayew, Tetteh (Tekpetey sub 72); Gyan (Jordan Ayew sub 41)