Ivory Coast have booked their ticket in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final after beating Mali 1-0 courtesy of Wilfried Zaha.
Mohamed Magassouba’s side started the brighter of the two nations, with Mali registering 10 shots to Les Elephants’ one in the first half, though the West African nation couldn’t find an opening past Sylvain Gbohouo between the sticks.
Ivory Coast threatened more in the second half and eventually found the break through after a hopeful long ball found Zaha, who kept his nerve to tuck home the game’s only goal and set up an Afcon date with Algeria.
It was a nail-biting round-of-16 encounter in north-eastern Egypt, but what did we learn?
1. Djenepo leaves Saints fans purring
The 21-year-old winger was one of, if not, the standout performers for Mali at Afcon these past couple of weeks, wreaking immense havoc on the flanks with his insatiable change of pace and innate close control. And, this afternoon at the New Suez Stadium, he once again demonstrated exactly why Southampton fans should be very excited about his arrival from Standard Liege this summer – even if the result didn’t favour him on this occasion.
In the first half alone Moussa Djenepo successfully completed more dribbles than any other player on the pitch with four take-ons, demonstrating his unnerving ability to carry the ball forward with venom and vigour.
Ivory Coast boast the likes of Wilfried Zaha and Nicolas Pepe, but for large spells of this round-of-16 match in Egypt it was the Saints wide-man who looked the player who should be drawing links to Arsenal and Liverpool – not the two Ivorians – as he was frightening with every touch of the ball and every marauding gallop.
If Southampton fans were disappointed Mohamed Elyounoussi failed to really stamp his mark on the wings at St Mary’s Stadium last term, then, on evidence of Djenepo’s Afcon form, they may not be in for such misgivings with their latest wide recruit this time around.
2. Kamara’s tactical shortcomings
For the majority of this match Ivory Coast looked disjointed and cumbersome. They sorely lacked a cohesion you would expect from a nation that boasts so many elite-level performers. The problem for Ibrahim Kamara this afternoon was Mali’s set-up; they played with a 4-1-4-1 formation with the central midfield trio of Diadie Samassekou, Amadou Haidara and Lassana Coulibaly comfortably forging a formidable backbone, which stifled the attacking threat of Ivory Coast.
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As Zaha and Pepe looked to find room and flourish as they so often do on the bylines for their respective clubs, Mali swarmed them, compressing the space and forcing Les Elephants’ own attacking trio – with Jonathan Kodjia at the tip – to play with far too much room between them.
In truth, Ivory Coast haven’t look great this tournament, save for the Namibia thrashing, with a tame 1-0 win over South Africa and a defeat to Morocco; and this performance only helped to accentuate their tactical shortcomings and desperation for some form of rhythm. They will need to step it up for the match against Algeria.
3. …and Magassouba’s tactical shortcomings
Mali were the better side this afternoon, make no mistake about that, but their first half masterclass, in which they should have been leading by one or two, were it not for their excessively poor shooting accuracy, was diametrically at odds with their display after the restart.
In a bizarre twist Magassouba decided to make a number of tactical tweaks, despite not being under much threat from Ivory Coast, including taking off one of their star performers in Abdoulay Diaby, though this may have been due to injury given how early the substitution happened in the second half, as well as bringing off Haidara, who was having a fine game in the middle of the park.
Mali’s success – as mentioned above – was down to their central midfield spine; so why Magassouba felt the need to break up his central midfield triumvirate is anyone’s guess, and well, it ultimately came back to haunt him, as his side lost shape, and lost the game.
4. Marega’s mishaps
Moussa Marega, the trusty source of goals for Porto, having netted 40 across all competitions the previous two seasons, proved far too wasteful in front of goal this afternoon, squandering a number of glorious opportunities to put the game beyond Ivory Coast’s reach.
The Ivorians were fortunate Marega forgot his shooting boots today as they should have been out of the game by half time, with the Porto marksman guilty of a number of shooting aberrations in the penalty box, not least his left-footed effort just before the interval, which could only brush the side netting.
Marega’s movement was certainly second to none as he was able to manoeuvre himself into dangerous shooting opportunities aplenty, but it was followed in the 18-yard area that his centre-froward shortcomings became manifest, with the striker proving too hesitant to either get a strike away or simply not finding the requisite range to trouble Gbohouo.
5. Ponderous Pepe outdone by Zaha
For, not the first time, in this tournament Nicolas Pepe came up short, looking a shadow of the player who rose to meteoric prominence with Lille last season.
The 24-year-old has been heavily linked with a move away from the Stade Pierre-Mauroy this summer, with the likes of PSG, Liverpool and Bayern Munich all credited with an interest in the incisive winger, and yet, he simply didn’t look like a player capable of either supplanting Salah or Mane at Anfield, or, emulating the fabled footsteps of Robben or Ribery in Bavaria.
His poor performance this afternoon resulted in his eventual departure from the pitch in only the 68th minute when Ivory Coast were crying out for a moment of invention or inspiration – that eventually fell to Zaha, who was also having a poor match until the finish, but ultimately provided the goods when his side needed him.