Thursday, February 7, 2008

African Cup of Nations Semifinals Recap

Alright, so I was 0-2 in predicting the results of today's African Cup of Nations semifinals. I think that's what makes this game so special. I went with both of the "favorites" for all of the logical reasons, and my logic was proven to be skewed. Hey, I can live with that.

The biggest surprise, at least as far I was concerned, was Egypt's 4-1 victory over Ivory Coast. It wasn't the fact that Egypt won that surprised me; after all, Egypt are the defending champions of this tournament. It was the margin of victory that really shocked me.

Striker Amr Zaky bagged the game-winning goal for Egypt for the second straight game; in fact, Zaky scored twice in a span of five minutes in the second half today to propel the Pharaohs.

Egypt went up 1-0 through a goal from former Sheffield United midfielder Ahmed Fathi in the 12th minute. Fathi took a bouncing ball outside the 18 and sent it towards goal, though a significant deflection was what beat the Ivorian goalkeeper.

The match then went scoreless until Zaky's first goal of the game in the 62nd minute to put Egypt up 2-0. Lyon forward Abdul Kader Keïta pulled a goal back for my pretournament picks just a minute later, but Zaky scored again in the 67th minute to throw a wrench in Ivory Coast's comeback hopes.

Mohamed Aboutreika, who has scored a whopping 81 goals in 128 league appearances for Egyptian club side El-Ahly, added an insurance goal in second half injury time to account for the final margin.

The scoreline was a bit misleading; Chelsea striker Didier Drogba had three very good chances denied by Egypt's goalkeeper, Essam Al Hadari, when it was still 1-0.

Six Premiership players were in Ivory Coast's starting lineup but surprisingly, Middlesbrough's Mohamed Shawky didn't play for Egypt today although he'd started in their previous games and is a fixture at the holding midfield position for his country.

In today's other semifinal, Cameroon beat hosts Ghana 1-0 behind a 72nd minute goal from former Colorado Rapids midfielder and Alain Nkong. Nkong came on as a substitute 10 minutes prior to his goal, and his appearance was only the second in his international career.

Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o continued his prolific tournament with the assist on Nkong's game-winner. A superb through ball sent Nkong in on goal and his opened-foot finish allowed the team and German coach Otto Pfister to book a place in the final, where they'll meet Egypt.

Pfister has managed across Africa in both a club and international capacity since 1972 and has never won an African Cup of Nations. He's been in charge of a U-17 World Cup winner (Ghana-1992) and a U-19 African Cup of Nations winner (Ivory Coast-1983), but has never won Africa's continental championship.

It was a pretty even game and both countries had their chances. I was surprised that Cameroon's defense was able to shut down Ghana but to be fair, the latter were forced to play with Michael Essien in the back to replace the suspended captain, John Mensah, and were without Asamoah Gyan and Laryea Kingston altogether due to injury.

The final is now set. Egypt will meet Cameroon in Accra on Sunday. Prior to that, we'll see the Third Place game between Ivory Coast and Ghana. Because of that third place game, Salomon Kalou, Didier Drogba, and Michael Essien will all miss the huge match between Chelsea and Liverpool and that should offset the absence of star striker Fernando Torres for Liverpool.

I'll go with the defending champions to beat Cameroon and repeat. They've defied my expectations so far so I might as well ride the form team, although Cameroon are playing well right now also. Of course, Egypt did thump Cameroon 4-2 during the group stage but if anything, I think that result plays in the latter’s favor as they’ll want revenge and Egypt may come out a bit cocky.

These third place games are always crapshoots. Teams either come out with no energy and spirit because they're not in the final, or they come out to play with no pressure on their shoulders and relatively little on the line. The better team is Ivory Coast, particularly if Ghana's injury problems don't get better over the next couple of days.

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