Friday, 29 January 2010

Africa Cup of Nations: the Semi Finals


It wouldn’t be hard to understand why a peace-loving character would have given the west-Angolan city of Benguela a wide berth on Thursday. The boys were back in town. A rivalry unmatched in world football was being re-ignited and the promise of violence and controversy filled the air. That’s right: Egypt and Algeria were going head to head. There were four teams left in the Africa Cup of Nations and two of them wanted to use each other’s bodies for kicking practice.

In the end, the game didn’t disappoint on the controversy front. Algeria, the taller and more physical of the teams, set out to play on the break, hitting long balls and trying to win free kicks in dangerous positions. Egypt, on the other hand, showed the inventive and tidy organisation of their proud forebears, playing neat passing football and trying to draw their opponents into rash challenges. All this sparring was shot through with a strong dose of aggression. Egypt, after all, lost out on a trip to the World Cup after they were beaten by Algeria in a playoff match last November; providing yet another reason for animosity between the two sides.

In the end, the early performance of referee Bonaventure Koffi Codjia and his inability not to be swayed by Egyptian pressure led to the killing off of the game as a contest. With the tie still goalless, Algeria had a free kick in a dangerous position. The ball was sent in and towering Algerian centre-back Rafik Halliche jumped for the ball with Egypt’s goalkeeper Essam El Hadary. El Hadary, always happy to spend some time lying on the ground in his tracksuit, fell to the floor. Halliche, who had done nothing wrong, was booked for his challenge.

This decision came back to haunt the referee almost immediately. A few minutes later, Halliche scuffed the ball wildly into the path of Egyptian striker Emad Motaeb, who surged into the penalty error only to be scythed down by the hapless (no longer towering) Algerian. Halliche seemed to have got away with it until the Egyptian players railroaded the referee and he was forced to give the defender a second yellow card. This time, the decision was justified, but the sending off it led to was not. Insult was added to injury when Egypt’s Abd Rabou, taking the resulting penalty, stopped his run-up half way through, only to continue it and score. The rules had been broken, but this seemed not to occur to the referee, who was then subjected to a frightening piece of physical intimidation by Algerian goalkeeper Chaouchi, who only received a yellow card for his transgression which, considering he had grabbed the head of the confused referee, was probably less than he deserved. That his attack was the result of a series of bad decisions against his team was scant excuse but the impartial viewer couldn’t help feeling that Algeria had been wronged and the game had been ruined. A maritime transport investigator from Benin, referee Codjia was left all at sea by the intensity of the fixture.

From the penalty on, it was hard to see Algeria finding a way back, although with their height there was always the chance they’d score from a free kick or corner. Egypt played well, but it wasn’t until late on that they got their second goal, through Zidan (just one “e” away from being Zidane), and from then on it was a desperate stumble to the finish for Algeria. Nadir Belhadj was sent off for an awful double footed challenge and Chaouchi was given the red card his earlier fit of rage merited after he aimed a swinging kick at Gedo. Off he wandered, shirt off, fury and sorrow playing in equal parts across his face, as the Egyptian supporters howled in delight. It ended 4-0, but it felt marred by poor decisions from players and referee alike.


If Algeria and Egypt played a game fraught with drama and emotion, the same could not be said about these two West African rivals. Ghana, without Captain Stephen Appiah, Chelsea star Michael Essien and (yet another driving midfielder) Inter Milan’s Sulley Muntari; are a young team missing their big performers. Nigeria is a team whose historical stature belies their current state. These seemingly negative things could have made for an intriguing match-up but as it was, Ghana took the lead through a headed Asamoah Gyan goal from a corner in the 21st minute and rode their luck to victory.

Nigeria was the better team but their passing lacked a cutting edge and their finishing was well below par. Striker Obafemi Martins managed to wriggle in between Ghana’s well-organised defence on a couple of occasions but each time his attempted chips were cut out by Richard Kingson, who enjoyed a solid game in goal. Premier league star John Obi Mikel showed only touches of quality in the Nigeria midfield and striker Chinedu Obasi was dominated by his Hoffenheim team-mate Isaac Vorsah, who was a rock at the heart of Ghana’s defence. African teams are often criticised for tactical naivety but Ghana played it just right, sitting deep and giving Nigeria little opportunity to utilise the pace of their front men.

Nevertheless, the Ghanaians did very little going forward and in the end it was hard not to feel as though Nigeria shouldn’t have got something from the game, particularly when substitute Yakubu diverted a drilled cross wide. Still, it was tough to feel too sorry for Nigeria when their management chose to withdraw Lokomotiv Moscow striker Osaze Odemwingie from the field twenty minutes from time. Odemwingie, who has had a good tournament, was a genuine, if rather wayward, threat for the Super Eagles. But so it goes. Nigeria are out and Ghana trundle into the final where they will have to raise their game if they hope to defeat defending champions Egypt, who have their sights set on a third consecutive Africa Cup of Nations title.

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