Saturday saw the second round of CHAN 2016 Group D fixtures take centre stage, with Mali beating Zimbabwe 1-0 in dramatic fashion before Zambia beat Uganda by the same score.
The first round of matches gave nothing away as to who would be qualifying for the knockout stage from pool D, which gave Saturday’s clashes an open, exciting feel.
And the first match of the afternoon certainly lived up to the dramatic billing, with Moussa Sissoko’s late goal handing Mali three precious points. Christopher Katongo followed that up by scoring the only goal in Zambia's win, securing qualification in the process.
Here’s a look at Saturday’s scores, together with the Group D table and upcoming fixtures:
|Jan. 24||1 p.m. / 8 a.m.||A||Morocco vs. Rwanda|
|Jan. 24||4 p.m. / 11 a.m.||A||Ivory Coast vs. Gabon|
|Jan. 25||1 p.m. / 8 a.m.||B||Ethiopia vs. Angola|
|Jan. 25||4 p.m. / 11 a.m.||B||Cameroon vs. Congo|
|Jan. 26||1 p.m. / 8 a.m.||C||Guinea vs. Nigeria|
|Jan. 26||4 p.m. / 11 a.m.||C||Niger vs. Tunisia|
|Jan. 27||1 p.m. / 8 a.m.||D||Zambia vs. Mali|
|Jan. 27||4 p.m. / 11 a.m.||D||Uganda vs. Zimbabwe|
While Mali were always expected to turn Zimbabwe over, it was actually the underdogs who started the better side on Saturday.
They found themselves in behind the Mali defence on numerous occasions in the opening period, but they just didn’t have enough to get the ball over the line. In fact, they were rather wasteful in front of goal.
Edmore Chirambadare had two chances to put Zimbabwe ahead early on, but he couldn’t quite stretch to meet Marshal Mudehwe’s square ball for the first and simply took too much time for the second.
Journalist Fisayo Dairo was one of many commenting on Zimbabwe’s lack of conviction in front of goal:
These Zimbabweans are just dribbling. They can't shoot. I can now see why they are yet to score in #CHAN2016. They should be 2-0 up already— Fisayo Dairo (@FisayoDairo) January 23, 2016
Zimbabwe's Rodreck Mutuma then hit the post with a glancing header that had goalkeeper Djigui Diarra stranded in a half that Mali simply didn’t turn up for.
Something desperately had to change at half time for the favourites, and they undoubtedly looked a better side in the second period.
Sekou Koita was proving a real handful for the Zimbabwe defence, although his final pass also let him down.
It was looking like one of those games that wasn’t going to produce a goal if they played for a month, but Mali caught Zimbabwe cold with just eight minutes left on the clock courtesy of a Sissoko strike.
The Mali midfielder arrived on to a sublime cross from the left side to volley his team in front, as CAF revealed:
It certainly wasn’t a goal that Mali deserved, but the defending from Zimbabwe simply wasn’t good enough.
Sissoko was in acres of space as the cross came in, with Stephen Mukatuka and Lawrence Mhlanga like statues watching him find the back of the net.
Zimbabwe will certainly feel hard done by after giving an excellent account of themselves, and they have now been eliminated from the competition.
Mali will be looking to finish top of Group D with a victory in their final game against Uganda, but they’ll need to improve on Saturday’s performance if they want to find a way to do so.
Still, they say the sign of champions is playing badly and winning, and Mali’s smash-and-grab triumph will give them plenty of confidence heading into the final round of fixtures.
In Saturday's other match, a single goal from Katongo just before half-time was enough to see Zambia past Uganda, and per the team's official Twitter account, the side secured passage to the next round in the process:
The two teams served up an excellent encounter with plenty of chances on both sides, although Uganda struggled to keep up with the nimble Katongo, whose mobility gave them fits.
It didn't come as much of a surprise when he powered Chipolopolo ahead just before half-time, and while the Ugandans came close to equalising on several occasions, Zambia thoroughly deserved the win and their ticket for the knockout stages.
The team still sports a perfect record and will be looking to keep their run going against Mali, who need only a draw to qualify. Uganda aren't mathematically eliminated yet, but they'll need a big win over Zimbabwe and hope Zambia take their final group-stage match seriously.