The second day of Afcon competition kicked off in Port Elizabeth, as Group B’s four teams roared into action. With the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Mali and Niger all competing, fans had a chance to assess the future prospects of the four nations and to begin to judge the dynamic of a group which is among the tightest in the competition.
From my personal point of view, the opening match between Ghana and the DRC was of particular interest; in a recent previews piece I tipped Ghana to be the eventual tournament winners, while I also picked Congo out to be the Dark Horse of the competition—the team that people expect little from, but who actually have the capacity to flourish and prosper, particularly with the pressure off.
Both teams have endured tournament run-ins rife with turmoil and disarray, but the two squads still possess quality enough to trouble the majority of the other teams in the tournament.
Ghana are without players good enough to make the first eleven of any other national side: injury, suspension, retirement and disagreement have ruled out Kevin-Prince Boateng, Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari and Ayew brothers André and Jordan—that is an assemblage of talent whose loss would be hard for any team to overcome and yet, among their ranks, Ghana still possess some of the continent’s finest players.
My colleague Sam Tighe predicted Kwadwo Asamoah to be one of the tournament’s stars, whilst I myself have long championed the qualities of the likes of Christian Atsu and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu. Despite their absentees, Ghana may well have enough talent to see them right through to the final reaches of the tournament.
For the Democratic Republic of Congo, problems have emerged not from squad selection, but from a bonuses row which had threatened to leave the team split and ruin the spirit of the bunch. Fortunately, it seems like those disagreements have been laid to rest until another day.
Despite going two-nil down to Ghana—a situation which would have placed the microscope on any warring, disgruntled selection of players and exposed them—the Leopards rallied and fought back to secure a 2-2 draw.
Each of the game’s two halves demonstrated exactly why I had backed each to impress at this tournament. The first half saw the Black Stars flourish with their succinct and efficient attacking play. Despite Congo looking the stronger of the two, Ghana sought the goal mercilessly with Agyemang-Badu and Asamoah the goalscorers.
But the Leopards, and their legendary coach Claude Le Roy, are made of sterner stuff, and they rallied and fought back through Tresor Mapi Mputu and Dieumerci Mbokani—two players that, ardent Bleacher readers will know, I have been backing for many months.
While both nations will be encouraged by their form in front of goal, the Group’s two other teams, Mali and Niger, will be hoping that it is their defensive frailties that are exploited over the next few games.
The West African pair played out a fairly dull contest which looked, until late on, to be ending as the third 0-0 draw in a very low-key start to the competition. Unfortunately for Niger, Mali and their skipper, ex-Barcelona man Seydou Keita, were clearly unwilling to settle for another bore draw.
After defending commendably, and frustrating their more exalted opposition, Niger finally cracked in the eighty-fourth minute, when goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda failed to hold onto a Mali cross, and Keita was there to capitalise. Neither keeper had convinced, with both looking uncomfortable coming to claim the ball, but it was just unfortunate for the Mena that it was Daouda who slipped up.
With Mali in the driving seat, the Eagles will be keen to improve on last year’s third place finish. Tougher tests will await them, and I expect to see some marvelous competition between Group B’s teams as the fortunes of the four unravel over the coming weeks.