Whilst the first day of the Africa Cup of Nations ended goalless, with little advancing within the group dynamic, the state of stasis has left it all to play for in the remaining two days of Group A action. With two teams left frustrated and dejected, and two taking solace from their performances, how will the rest of the group unravel?
South Africa, the hosts, were expected to take to the field buoyed by the home support and by the promise of a tournament held on their own doorstep.
Unfortunately, whilst the eyes of a nation can inspire the greatest of men, they can also cause weaker-willed characters to crumble under the weight of expectation.
Sadly for Bafana Bafana, their much-maligned team tended to display the second characteristic, as their bravado vanished in Johannesburg. Facing tournament debutants Cape Verde, the island nation with a well-publicised population of half a million, the match could, on paper, have been the easiest break-in for a host nation who have found victories hard to come by in recent fixtures.
However, the Sharks promised resiliency and organisation—as demonstrated in a recent friendly draw with Nigeria.
The home team were initially frustrated by the West Africans, and as their confidence and fluidity diminished, the islanders grew in stature and cohesion—even crafting (and wasting) several good chances.
With Gordon Igesund, South Africa’s experienced coach, fuming on the sidelines, the boys labored. Unable, or unwilling, to implement their subtle attacking game, they resorted to long balls—totally unsuited to the talents of Lehlohonolo Majoro and Bernie Parker.
It is back to the drawing board for Bafana, who need to pick up the tempo and rediscover their composure as soon as possible. For Cape Verde, the AFCON holds no fear—and the islanders are perhaps one shock result away from an unlikely qualification from the group stage.
In the second game of the day, North Africans Morocco tackled Angola, who despite their petrodollars and a splattering of creative talents have flattered to deceive in recent tournaments. With both teams set to face an unenviable date with the hosts within the coming weeks, the pair will have been keen to kick off the tournament with three points—thus taking control of a group that appears to be blown wide open.
Unfortunately, it was not to be.
The day’s second 0-0 prompted a state of stasis which descended over Group A. It is perhaps Morocco who will be most disappointed by their inability to hoist themselves into the driving seat. Despite the absence of the likes of Adel Taarabt and Marouane Chamakh from their squad, the team have creative and attacking options, the like of which would be the envy of any of their Group rivals.
Unfortunately for the Atlas Lions, the team’s quadrant of talent—Abdelaziz Barrada, Oussama Assaidi, Mounir El Hamdaoui and Nordin Amrabat—failed to inspire the team.
Even the late introductions of Younès Belhanda—one of the continent’s most prized players—and Youssef El-Arabi were unable to provoke a breakthrough.
Angola will rightly be encouraged by their performance and subsequent point. They were ineffective in the first half, but the introduction of Guilherme at the break gave them increased options, and they looked far more threatening after his arrival. A late chance, spawned by Manucho after perhaps being put-off by his fellow frontman, could well have changed the complexion of the group. But Os Palancas Negras, led by cosmopolitan Uruguayan coach Gustavo Ferrin, could well be eyeing up a place in the quarterfinals.
So, there was no scoring, and admittedly the goalmouth action was at a premium, but opening day performances and results will have mattered a great deal for the four teams in Group A. Now with a maximum points total of only seven available for all teams, the next two games will doubtless produce the kind of drama fans have come to expect from this tournament, even if the football remains, for the moment, conservative.