The Africa Cup of Nations Group of Death came to a conclusion in Malabo Tuesday night as Algeria and Ghana eliminated Senegal and South Africa, respectively.
Some may argue—fairly—that Pool C went according to form, with the Desert Foxes and the Black Stars, the two sides who held Germany to a draw at the World Cup, overcoming two nations who have too often flattered to deceive in the continental arena.
However, this was a group that remained open right to the death.
Neither of the quarter-final qualifiers were particularly convincing, while both Senegal and South Africa will have reasons to feel that they are undeserving of a first-round exit.
Ghana, in particular, will feel relieved to still be alive in this unpredictable tournament.
The Black Stars largely struggled to ignite throughout the group stage—they were impressive during the opening stages of their first match against Senegal before fading, but a listless outing in their second match was rescued by a late Asamoah Gyan effort.
Similarly, South Africa ought to have finished them off in the group decider, only for two late goals from John Boye and Andre Ayew to have seen them through.
Ghana were fortunate that they contested their second game against a surprisingly lethargic Algeria, while South Africa could feasibly have had a second in the group decider when Bongani Ndulula went close to adding to Mandla Masango’s spectacular opener.
However, new Black Stars boss Avram Grant will be optimistic that he is overseeing an improvement in Ghana. They created a hatful of chances against South Africa, and with their defence looking increasingly resilient and Asamoah Gyan growing into the tournament, they will be confident of reaching the final.
I also wonder what the joy of two late victories might do to a team so recently plagued by such well-documented disharmony.
By contrast, their opponents, South Africa, have had their emotional fault lines exposed during this group stage.
On three occasions, Bafana Bafana have led; on three occasions, they have let their advantage slip away. For this to happen once is understandable. Twice is perhaps unfortunate. But three times, in the space of three games, is surely unforgivable.
There has, perhaps, been an element of naivety around South Africa, and I would certainly argue that the absence of a quality finisher has cost them dearly.
Their offensive play and the creative offerings of the likes of Masango, Oupa Manyisa and Andile Jali have been among the best of the tournament so far, but unfortunately, missteps in front of goal have proved costly.
Bernard Parker, admittedly, didn’t impress when brought on against Senegal, but had Mashaba not overlooked a striker who proved so devastating under Gordon Igesund, things might have been different for Bafana Bafana.
Senegal too were lacking in key positions.
It was a fact acknowledged by Alain Giresse in the post-match press conference. “We needed more of an offensive presence,” he began, in an emotional exchange with journalists after the match. “We don’t have many players who can play this role, the attacking midfielder.”
The coach is right to point out this great failing in the Teranga Lions’ make-up. Even when Mohamed Diame was fit and operating as the link man between midfield and attack, they were occasionally found to be wanting, creatively speaking.
Without him, Giresse charged Papakouli Diop with this role in the first and third group-stage matches. Diop, while an effective defensive player, isn’t really cut out for the position at the pinnacle of the midfield three, and on one or two occasions against Algeria, he failed to connect with a pass or miss-hit a shot.
Perhaps Giresse ought to have dropped Sadio Mane deeper into midfield and brought on another forward. I, personally, was surprised when he used his three substitutes without allowing Moussa Sow—with three goals in his last four matches—to try to salvage something against Algeria.
As Giresse rides off into the sunset, he will likely reflect on what might have been and how a decent attacking midfielder and a natural right wing-back might have made the difference.
Finally, Algeria progress in second place as a result of losing to the Black Stars in their second match.
The Desert Foxes have arguably been one of the great disappointments of the tournament so far, yet they will still head into the quarter-finals among the favourites for the title.
Following their late capitulation at the hands of Ghana, there were evident signs of nerves against Senegal on Tuesday evening. Rais M’Bolhi was guilty of a miscued clearance, while the cynical time-wasting and play-acting of the second period betrayed a fear that Senegal had a goal in them.
Similarly, there was an outpouring of utter relief following Nabil Bentaleb’s late (terrific) strike.
While Christian Gourcuff remained restrained in the post-match press conference, Sofiane Feghouli allowed a more visible expression of joy.
Algeria have neither been fluid nor convincing thus far, and they look a weaker side without the menacing goal threat of Islam Slimani.
However, if they can squeeze into the semi-final and demonstrate the ruthlessness they showed in qualification, they may ensure that one of the Group of Death’s four heavyweights ends up lifting the title on February 8.
The quotes in this article were collected by writer Ed Dove in Malabo