Burkina Faso misfire again in scoreless draw with Equatorial Guinea
BATA, Equatorial Guinea -- Three quick thoughts from Wednesday's 0-0 draw between Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso in Group A of the 2015 African Nations Cup.
1. Something isn't right with Burkina Faso
The first two games of Burkina Faso's African Nations Cup was neatly summed up by a passage of play six minutes before half-time.
Alain Traore had already hit the post with an 18th-minute free-kick when, located on the left corner of the penalty area by a cross from the right, he attempted a volley that would have won the "goal of the tournament" plaudits had it come off. He scuffed it badly and the ball returned close to its origin. It was put in again and Traore, still unattended, had a second go. This effort, placed more deliberately, was turned onto the post by Equatorial Guinea goalkeeper Felipe Ovono, the rebound spinning up and tantalisingly beyond Aristide Bance.
This mixture of rushed finishing and poor luck was familiar to those who watched Burkina Faso create chance after chance against Gabon on Saturday before falling 2-0. Their attacking riches are obvious and will keep them in most games, but there is an evident nervousness that perhaps comes of being fancied to reach the later stages of the tournament.
Burkina Faso were surprise runners-up in 2013 and with that has come added, and unfamiliar, expectation. Defeat in Bata would have put them out of the competition and there were early jitters too, notably when Germain Sanou ran to gather a deflected Salvador Iban Edu free-kick but travelled outside his area and conceded another.
Something does not seem to be quite right. Preparations for the tournament have not been ideal -- coach Paul Put once referred to the "campsite" that his players are staying in -- but even a sleepless night under the stars would not explain the way in which his side were unlucky in the first half, faded from view in the second and failed to create a single chance of note in the final half-hour. You would have expected them to come on strong against the mixture of youngsters, veterans and part-timers fielded by the home side, as had the Republic of Congo, but no such onslaught took place and in the end the Burkinabe were perhaps a little lucky not to be caught out.
Now, they go into their decider against the Congolese with their future in this tournament hanging by a thread. When seeing the draw for what looked the tournament's weakest group, few could have expected this.
2. Equatorial Guinea continue to fascinate
Nobody knew what to expect from Equatorial Guinea before this tournament but what they have got has, at times, been quite delightful. There has been a freedom and exuberance to their play that has surely been encouraged by Esteban Becker, drafted in to coach the at the last minute after coaching their highly successful women's team.
The entertainment comes with a degree of naivety: in both games flicks and feints have been attempted in areas that most teams in major tournaments would instantly reject and, particularly against Burkina Faso, their midfield was frequently caught ahead of the ball and exposed to counter-attacks. Few can get away with that against the Burkinabe but surprisingly it was Put's side that wilted after the break.
They were not without chances to take a famous victory, either. Their clearest sights came after half-time: first, the Mallorca B winger Kike, unmarked at the far post, volleyed over from close range; then, 56 minutes in, central midfielder Viera Ellong was released by Javier Balboa on the right only to slice wide. It was Balboa again who played the pass that let Kike cut inside and, having done the hard work, miss the target again 18 minutes from the end.
Equatorial Guinea's unpredictability both thrills and frustrates: some of their players, winger Iban in particular, dwell too long in possession and the search for the non-obvious sometimes ignores the best option. But the displays of players like Kike and the Estoril forward Balboa, a beguiling deep-lying mixture of physique and skill who rarely plays a conservative pass, perhaps underline just how thin the lines are between individual success and failure in football.
Kike and Iban are reserve-team members at best for their club sides and Balboa might have expected a better end destination than Estoril when on Real Madrid's books. Emilio Nsue, playing in a lone striking role, might have earned his once-moot move to Chelsea on this form rather than ending up at Middlesbrough. Put a group of talented players together in the right time and place, and sometimes they will outdo themselves.
Whatever the actual sum of their talents might be, Equatorial Guinea's continued interest in the competition is a positive both on and off the pitch. Victory against local rivals Gabon, who will qualify for the quarterfinals if they best Congo, on Sunday would propel them into the last eight. A draw could be enough, too. You find yourself hoping they get what they need.
3. Bance's return has mixed results
There had been rumours of a bust-up on the Burkina Faso team coach after the Gabon defeat. The argument, which allegedly involved Traore and Pitroipa and was not denied by their football federation, was said to have involved the role of talismanic centre-forward Bance. The HJK Helsinki striker, a hero of the 2013 run and a towering presence who allows the likes of Pitroipa and the Traores space to play, did not start against Gabon but was restored to the Stallions' starting lineup on Wednesday.
It did not seem like a bad plan. Although Ferebory Dore made little impact on the Equatoguinean backline on Saturday, Bance is a more aggressive player and it felt as if some physical battles were there to be won. But Bance was rarely involved and did little to strike fear into opposing centre-backs Rui and Diosdado Mbele.
His most noteworthy work in the first half came outside the penalty area as he flashed two shots across the box and, while one second-half header across goal almost gave Pitroipa a clear chance; that was it from Burkina Faso's totem. As they ran out of ideas in the last half-hour, you wondered whether the speed of Jonathan Zongo (who had played against Gabon) would have been a better option against a side that provided plenty of space on the counter-attack.
In any event, Burkina Faso have yet to happen upon a balanced attacking formula this time around and, in this team of wingers and playmakers, it seems legitimate to ask where the goals will come from. The service to Bance was not up to scratch, but nor was the striker's own application.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.