By Kartikeya Bhattacharyya
Cameroon, Jan 27 (IANS) Egypt, the most successful football team in the African continent, defeated Ivory Coast via penalties to reach the quarter-finals in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
Egypt, who last won the title in 2010, and Ivory Coast, winner in 1992 and 2015, faced off in the 2021 AFCON Round of 16 on Wednesday night, ending in a 0-0 draw that was decided on penalties 4-5, seeing Egypt enter the final eight.
This game was undoubtedly the biggest of the competition as both teams were the favourites to lift the trophy, Egypt being the record holders of AFCON, winning the competition seven times and also having possibly the best player in the world in Mohamed Salah.
The Ivory Coast squad has the most impressive lineup of individual talent in the entire continent, boasting of the likes of AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie and Ajax striker Sebastian Haller.
Going into the match, Ivory Coast had more momentum as they had topped their group going unbeaten in the process. Egypt had lost their first game to Nigeria but rallied back to finish second in their group.
Ivory Coast also had the advantage of being able to score goals. They had scored six in three group games; Egypt managed a measly two in their three group matches as they were struggling to put things together in the final third, even though they were defensively solid, having conceded only one goal en route to their Round of 16 clash.
On Wednesday night, both teams were fairly evenly matched, getting ample scoring opportunities throughout the 120 minutes of the game, with Egypt’s most notable chances being a spectacular long-range strike by Omar Marmoush in the 16th minute that hit the crossbar and a one on one attempt that was missed by substitute Trezeguet in the second half of regular time.
Ivory Coast came really close to scoring through an acrobatic overhead kick by midfielder Ibrahim Sangare in the 38th minute as well as a 69th-minute header by Sebastien Haller. Both were by the lightning-quick reflexes of opposing keeper Amr El Soleya.
After failing to break the deadlock even in extra time, both teams went to penalties, with Mohamed Salah stepping up to the penalty spot to put his team ahead, thus punishing Eric Bailly’s lackadaisical attempt, which was saved easily by substitute keeper Mohamed Gabal.
The game may have needed spot kicks to decide its outcome; the main difference between the two teams was in the quality of coaching. Ivory Coast head coach Patrice Beaumelle made the questionable decision of starting 34-year-old Max Gradel on the left wing ahead of Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha and Sassuolo’s Jeremie Boga, bringing on the two only late in the second half of normal time.
It is difficult to be 100 percent certain whether starting Zaha or Boga would have made the difference, but it would have without doubt aided their side’s chances as both of them to play in much higher-quality leagues than Gradel, who plies his trade in Turkey. Zaha in particular could have really shifted the scale in the Elephants’ favour as his talent was a big reason why Crystal Palace did not get relegated in the ultra-competitive English Premier League in the last two seasons.
Winning this game considerably strengthens Egypt’s chances to win as they’ll now be boosted by the confidence of beating such a star-studded team and with a bona fide world-class player such as Salah as well as veteran manager Carlos Queiroz at the helm, it would not be a shock to see them extend their record to eight trophies.