Ghana and Egypt earn narrow wins to set up African Nations Cup progress
PORT-GENTIL, Gabon -- On the bumpiest of pitches, Ghana and Egypt -- the two giants of Group D -- did not enjoy the smoothest of rides but did eventually see off obdurate opposition to strengthen their cases as contenders for the African Nations Cup.
It was hardly a day on which anything came easily. By the end of Egypt's last-gasp, 1-0 win over Uganda, the surface at Stade de Port-Gentil had cut up like a Sunday league park pitch; it was visible evidence of two bruising games that left the defeated sides rightly feeling hard done by.
Ghana, in the short term, have less to worry about. Asamoah Gyan's excellent first-half header was enough to dispose of Mali, who battered the Black Stars at times after the break and were unfortunate not to equalise.
Two wins out of two means Ghana are guaranteed a quarterfinal place; Egypt still need a point to be sure. When the two sides face each other at the same venue on Wednesday, they will be playing for first place in the group.
The question is: How keen will either be to finish first? That's because the group winners will remain in Port-Gentil for their last-eight fixture and contests on this pitch are a slog.
Ghana coach Avram Grant suggested ahead of Saturday's games that "five injuries so far" in this tournament had been down to the poor playing surfaces in Gabon and the Confederation of African Football were suitably concerned to ask all four teams to conduct their warm-ups in the adjacent training stadium.
More of the same before a knockout game would be inconvenient and perhaps the northerly town of Oyem, where the runners-up will play their quarterfinal, might be a marginally more palatable destination for teams that both rely on players, who can counter at pace and carry the ball.
"We want to play on a good pitch," Grant said in his post-match news conference. "I don't want to speak about the pitch anymore but all the coaches are complaining about this. I'm not happy; we are a technical team and trying to play football."
Despite that, Ghana made light of such issues early on against the Malians. The front four of Gyan, Christian Atsu and the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan, were excellent, Atsu especially thriving on the right and performing with verve in a competition he seems to enjoy.
Good work by the Newcastle winger led to Andre Ayew missing after taking a clear chance right off sibling Jordan's toe; Ghana mastered the conditions well enough to repeatedly carve open a physical Mali side and suggest an attack that can sometimes appear disjointed is clicking into gear.
Yet their second-half performance was baffling and frustrating. Ghana did not create a clear chance, sitting off and getting lucky when Moussa Marega twice missed good chances for Mali at the far post.
In a stadium packed with their noisy fans the equaliser looked certain when Kalifa Coulibaly connected six yards out as the clock ticked toward added time, only for Ghana goalkeeper Razak Brimah to save brilliantly and keep his fifth consecutive clean sheet.
"It's not that we planned it, but in a tournament we have to play for the points," Grant said of his side's approach. "When they played direct they had chances and on this pitch it was very difficult to counter-attack. I'm happy for the boys; they were mature to understand that we needed the points."
While true, that ignores the fact Ghana rode their luck and that Grant's pragmatism might not look so canny against better opposition. Jordan Ayew said afterward that they had been forced to adapt their tactics and "play long balls to play for the second balls" as a result of the pitch's condition but that does not explain the marked difference between their two halves. Ghana also dropped off in their opening win over Uganda and the pattern is far from satisfactory.
Egypt's victory had a more positive feel, if only because of its timing. They had struggled to create clear chances against a Uganda team that had enjoyed opportunities of their own and, on balance, were the better side over the 90 minutes.
The winning goal, while undeserved, came from the kind of fluent break Egypt had not managed earlier. Mohamed Salah, having been generally quiet, delayed his pass to Abdallah Said perfectly and the substitute, who had been behind all of their most threatening second-half moments, beat goalkeeper Denis Onyango.
It was an example of quality shining through and meant Micho Sredojevic's Cranes are the first side to be eliminated from the tournament. On this evidence, though, a starting XI that included six players aged 23 or under will be back in the future.
"We've played against a very strong team and even now we're not sure of qualification," said Egypt manager Hector Cuper. "We are not safe, because Ghana are a great opponent. My players fought despite the pitch and the humidity. We wanted to win by many more goals but that's it, and we look forward to the match against Ghana."
Egypt might need to play much better but a draw will be enough to go through and their cause may be aided if Grant -- with his eye on the quarterfinals and perhaps even a different venue -- decides to rest players.
If Egypt lose and Mali beat Uganda then Alain Giresse's team are back in with a shout. Cuper and Co. have it all in their hands but, as two of Africa's biggest names saw on Saturday evening, this is a venue where everything can go to the wire.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.