Group B returned with one of the most high-profile matches of the tournament so far; a West African derby between Mali and Ghana, two of the continent’s biggest teams and two sides hoping to make a big impact in the latter stages of the Afcon.
The fact that the match was a replay of the third place playoff from last year’s edition of the cup was testament to the quality of the teams on display and their ambitions.
Whilst the match, sadly, was underwhelming, the result creates an intensely fascinating scenario in one of the competition’s tightest groups.
1. Congo Can Be Confident
At the time of going to the press, the Democratic Republic of Congo are engaging with Group outsiders Niger—a must-win for the Leopards and a game that could see them make big strides towards qualification from a tricky group.
Unfancied before the tournament, the former-Zaire were my pick to be the Dark Horses of the Afcon. Whilst I was exacerbated by the goals they conceded against Ghana in their first Group B clash, Claude Le Roy’s boys picked up the pace, and, driven on by their impressive spine of players, came back to draw with the Black Stars.
I fancy Congo to best Niger this afternoon, which will lead to a straight shoot-off between them and Mali in the group’s final game, a match which may well decide who qualifies from the group along with Ghana. With the Eagles looking less than impressive tonight, I might well tip the Congolese to once more upset the applecart and do the business in this final deciding game.
2. Diabate Has Some Way to Go to Replace Kanoute
Of the numerous powerful strikers that have headed to South Africa to front their national sides this January, Cheik Diabate has been one of the most disappointing. Whereas Dieumerci Mbokani was influential for Congo in their first game, and Ideye Brown impressed up top for Nigeria in their draw with Burkina Faso, Diabate has, over two games, flattered to deceive.
Some had envisaged that this would be the tournament where Mali found a new scoring sensation. Fredi Kanoute—all 6’4″ of him—had previously been that man, finding the net 23 times in only 39 internationals between 2004 and 2010. Alas, since his international retirement, the side are yet to find an ideal replacement—that figurehead who will score the goals that take Mali places.
Hope that it might have been Diabate looks to be dissipating, and while, at 24, time is on his side, aspirations that he might replicate his impressive 2012 Afcon look to be misplaced.
3. Ghana Not the Finished Article
For some 50 minutes against the DRC in their first Afcon match, Ghana looked like the real deal. They may have conceded a lot of possession to the Leopards, but they weathered the storm and eventually took the lead through first Agyemang-Badu, and then, Kwadwo Asamoah.
Then came the dramatic comeback by the Congolese, and all of a sudden, Ghanaian superiority didn’t seem so sturdy. Their game against Mali was a chance for the Black Stars to reaffirm their dominance and to demonstrate their intentions to take this competition by the scruff of its neck.
Unfortunately, and frustratingly for James Kwesi Appiah—the Ghana boss—his team failed to ally the result with an assured performance. The West Africans may still come good and put in a convincing performance, but at the moment, beyond the splatterings of excellence, they look like a whole lot of mediocrity and nerves.
It’s hard to proclaim the Black Stars are the champions-elect just yet.
4. African Goalkeepers: Some Worrying Trends
African Goalkeepers—they’ve always been a problematic bunch. Exceptions such as Jacques Songo’o or Thomas N’Kono have been rocks behind their defences and brought the best out of those in front of them. The general consensus, though, is that African ‘keepers are too often a liability and as likely to cost their team a point as they are to secure a victory and establish some confidence among a back line.
The Afcon 2013 is doing little to change the perception. Muteba Kidiaba, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with his bizarre haircut and almost perverse ‘”bum-scoot” celebration, has done little to affect the stereotype.
Mali have encountered opposition goalkeepers with some wild ideas about how to manage a defence. In their first game they were the beneficiaries as Nigerien guardian Kassaly Daouda failed to claim a cross, allowing Seydou Keita to steal the points for the Eagles.
Another goalkeeping blunder in their second match should really have ushered them on their way to victory once more, but despite handling the ball, deliberately, outside his area and preventing a goal-scoring opportunity, Fatawu Dauda escaped dismissal, as the ref only produced a yellow card.
With the game only in its early stages, being reduced to ten men could have been almost-fatal for Ghana. Instead, they survived, and even went on to pick up the three points.
Mali will be hoping that the eccentric Kidiaba will provide a hat-trick of goalkeeping gifts in their final Group B contest with Congo.
5. Characterless Ghana Contributing to Underwhelming Cup
This observation is a little harsh, and perhaps it’s too soon to say that Ghana are characterless. It’s perhaps not the right word, or perhaps not the most refined of sentiments. Johnny Paintsil has certainly won many admirers in the past with his flag waving antics, while the stories of Albert Adomah and goalscorer Mubarak Wakaso are both endearing and engrossing.
However, it’s hard to enjoy these contemporary Black Stars as much as their performances have been relished in years past. Even though Baby Jet Asamoah Gyan is there, his entourage are a bunch far less vivid and engaging than they have been in the past.
What a price to pay to enjoy the bustling, bruising powers of the Bison Michael Essien, who just having turned 30, should be in his prime? The talents of Sulley Muntari and “The Tornado” Stephen Appiah, so dynamic and potent when in their stride, are also gone from this squad whilst Kevin-Prince Boateng, Ghana’s highest profile star, is also absent after declaring his international retirement at the age of 24.
As if this quartet of absentees wasn’t enough, the Ayew brothers, André and Jordan, two men who appeared poised to declare themselves as stars at this stage, haven’t made the squad. The tournament, which is struggling to spark to full-paced fury, would be so much more the spectacle with characters such as these participating.
Still, perhaps over the course of time, maybe even over the course of this tournament, some among these new look Black Stars will emerge as new stars, new idols, new characters for a nation that seems to produce them so easily.
Ed Dove is Bleacher Report’s African Football Expert, you can follow him @Eddydove