In Group E of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Mali and Tunisia shared the spoils in Suez with a 1-1 draw, while Morocco and South Africa clinched 1-0 victories over Ivory Coast and Namibia respectively in Group D.
Tunisia were unable to register their first victory in the tournament as they played out a second consecutive scoreline, which leaves their hopes of reaching the first knockout round hanging in the balance.
The 2004 champions were indebted to their mercurial playmaker Wahbi Khazri, who rescued this point after they went a goal behind following another gaffe by their goalkeeper.
Meanwhile, at the Al-Salam Stadium a brilliantly taken Youssef En-Nesyri finish, courtesy of a wondrous Nordin Amrabat assist, gifted the Atlas Lions all three points and secured their place in the round of 16.
Rounding off the day’s action, a Bongani Zungu goal kept South Africa’s hopes of reaching the knockout rounds alive.
Here are seven observations from these three enticing Afcon encounters.
1. Goalkeeper woes remain
An error of judgement in their opening game against Angola, which led to a Djalma Campos equaliser, saw starting goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha dropped for the all-important Mali game.
His replacement Mouez Hassen, looked shaky, particularly from crosses so it was inevitable he’d produce a clanger, which came 15 minutes after the half-time interval. After winning a corner, Diadie Samassekou saw his delivery into the penalty area slip through Hassen’s hands, but it didn’t mean he had registered his first senior international goal, as it went down as an own goal.
It’s obvious this area is of high concern for Tunisian boss Alain Giresse, so all eyes are now on the Mauritania game and whether Ben Mustapha returns, Hassen stays or third choice Moez Ben Cherifia gets a runout.
2. Khazri leads by example
This afternoon saw Wahbi Khazri make his 46th appearance for Tunisia, making him among their most experienced player at these championships.
Naturally, as talisman and captain, all eyes were on him. From the get-go Khazri – playing off marksman Taha Khenissi – was determined to give Giresse’s side a perfect start and he was so close to doing so. Inside the opening five minutes Khazri, formerly of Sunderland, hit the woodwork from a sweetly struck free-kick.
Not one to be down, he further tested Djigui Diarra in the Mali goal from long range and was eventually rewarded moments after Mali went in front – a wickedly deflected free-kick. He wasn’t complaining. In fact, no one from either side had more shots on goal (5) than him.
3. No easy ride
Mali could very well claim to be the best nation to never win an AFCON title. To date, they’ve reached five semi-finals and one final. Mohamed Magassouba’s current incarnation came into today’s game off the back of a resounding 4-1 win over hapless Mauritania.
This encounter was never expected to be straightforward given Tunisia (25) are the second highest ranked African team – after Senegal (22) – in the latest FIFA world standings. And it proved to be the case even if they were gifted their go-ahead goal. Mali, by large, conceded possession and found it difficult to create many clear-cut opportunities on goal. If they are to end this long wait for silverware then a change of approach may be needed.
4. Ex-Premier League players strut their stuff
Khazri produced the moment of magic in the earlier kick-off, but Nordin Amrabat conjured up an even more impressive piece of individual sorcery in the Egyptian capital, collecting the ball from the left byline after an upfield pass, before going on a jinking run that took a quartet of Ivory Coast players out of the equation. With Youssef En-Nesyri timing his run to absolute perfection, Amrabat slipped through a timely pass for his compatriot, who duly produced the game’s opening – and only – goal.
The former Watford winger seldom engineered mesmeric pieces of skill to this quality during his days at Vicarage Road; in fact, during his near-half-century of Hornets appearances, the 32-year-old only mustered a measly three assists and not a single goal. He certainly looked a deadly prospect on occasion but proved far too inconsistent. That said, on the evidence of this evening’s game, he definitely looks a player who possesses all the key attributes of an elite level footballer – though he is now winding his career down in the Saudi Pro League.
5. No Zaha…again
The incisive Ivorian has dominated the headlines in recent days as the Crystal Palace winger opens the door on a move away from south London, but for headlines in Africa, the 26-year-old is making none…simply because he can’t buy a start in Ibrahim Kamara’s starting XI.
Against South Africa on Monday, Les Elephants were extremely flat and crying out for a man of Zaha’s creative influence, but he could only enjoy a 20-minute cameo as Kamara deployed Max Gradel instead. And again, in Cairo, the Ivory Coast coach decided to stick rather than twist, keeping a winning formula, and that, of course, meant no starting berth for Zaha.
Quite incredibly, with Ivory Coast again looking rather stodgy and lacking panache in the final third, not to mention also chasing the game, Kamara first brought on Maxwel Cornet, then Wilfried Bony, and finally, Mamadou Bagayoko – a forced substitution for the injured Serge Aurier – meaning Zaha remained on the bench for the entire game, and Morocco, almost inevitably, clinched victory.
6. The goals keep on flowing… just
Remarkably, we’re still yet to have a single 0-0 draw at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations so far, although South Africa v Namibia came mightily closing to changing that.
The first half saw these two neighbours play out a drab, lifeless encounter where both sides seemed to be conserving energy, rather like a training match. 0-0 at half time was no surprise and you’d have been forgiven for fearing the worst in the second.
While things didn’t improve substantially after the break, South Africa did up their game and in the end, their sprinkling of extra quality showed when Zungu broke the deadlock after 68 minutes. And so, we still await our first goalless draw at Afcon 2019.
7. Seagull makes the difference for the Bafana Bafana
In what was a battle between the two outsiders of Group D, quality was often in short supply and it became clear that fine margins would decide this one.
In the end, it was Brighton forward Percy Tau – who spent last season on loan at Union SG in Belgium – who proved to be that margin. Tau had stood out from the pack for most of the night and it was his corner which led to Zungu’s deciding goal.
If South Africa are to pull off a real shock by beating group leaders Morocco in their final game, sealing qualification, Tau will absolutely play a key role. Namibia, too, still have a slim chance of qualifying but will have to mastermind an even more unlikely win over Ivory Coast and hope that Morocco beat South Africa by more than one goal.