The Scorpions of The Gambia put up one of its most disciplined performance in recent memory as they fought out a 1-1 home draw against the Atlas Lions of Morocco in the opening day of Group C qualifiers for the Brazil 2014 World Cup at the Independence Stadium in Bakau on Saturday.
The home side cheered on by a three-quarter full stadium pulled the curtain raiser after only 14 minutes through the most unlikely of sources in defender Abdou Jammeh, to take a halftime lead. But Moroccan captain Hussein Kharja equalised 14 minutes from time to mainain the Atlas Lions unbeaten record against the Gambians.
In one of the four previous encounters between the North African and The Gambia, the West African side was outscored 9-0 in the qualifiers for the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations.T-Boy's goal was the first that Gambia scored against the Moroccans at senior level. A lot had happened in the final few days leading up to this particular game, ranging from the withdrawal of several key players due to injury or other unexplained reasons; to the confirmation of Luciano Mancini as head coach. But the Gambians recovered from a nervy start to put up one of theirbest performances on home turf.
The Scorpions were missing several key players and the Italian tactician went in for a makeshift Gambian team, with Pa Saikou Kujabi, Mamadou Futty Danso, Abdou Jammeh and Ousman Koli making up the back four while Christopher Allen was given his first competitive appearance at goal in the absence of skipper Pa Dembo Touray.
Yankuba Mal Ceesay like Ous Koli also made his long awaited return from the international wilderness to partner Tijan Jaiteh in midfield. The two were flanked by Pa Modou Jagne and Demba Savage while Mustapha Toubabo Jarju supported lone striker Momodou Ceesay upfront. Christopher Allen was the busier of the two goalkeepers in the opening minutes of the game but the Gambia Ports Authority net tender did not disappoint on his competitive debut, as he made a few crucial saves.
The Atlas Lions who were denied an opener by the Gambian defence were soon surprised by the Scorpions. After Demba Savage failed to connect to a Pa Modou Jagne cross, the HJK Helsinki midfielder atoned for his miss and sent in a perfect cross from a free-kick that found the unmarked Abdou Jammeh at the far post. The FC Kazma defender then stabbed home from a few yards out for the opener.
From that moment, the Gambian side were the better team and dominated the battle in midfield largely due to the fighting spirit of Mal Ceesay and the warrior heart of Tijan Jaiteh. The two flank players were also always helping out in midfield whenever the need arises while Toubabo Jarju also played very deep at times to take the pressure off the team.
The Italian Mancini should definitely be commended for the way he tactically nullified Morocco's most important player in Montpellier's Younis Belhanda for muchof the game. The French Ligue 1 winner following a bright start faded out of the completely after they went behind and most of the time he was just chasing shadows as he wasn't allowed to settle on the ball by the Gambians.
Yassine Salhi should have given Morocco the equaliser in the 26th minute but his shot went over the bar before Salhi also missed a golden opportunity in the 35th minute as he was denied by goalkeeper Christopher Allen who parried his shot away. The Atlas Lions were always very dangerous whenever they attacked but Christopher Allen was equal to the task anytime he was called upon, and one notable action was when he tipped a dipping free-kick over from Houssine Kharja on the stroke of halftime. The partnership between T-Boy Jammeh and Futty Danso was also out of this world as the Scorpions went into the break with the advantage.
As in the opening half, the Gambians again began the second period on the back foot and following some nervy moments of defending, the Scorpions soon found their footing with some enterprising skillful play that delighted the passionate home crowd. Gambia soon settled in the game and Pa Modou Jagne had a great chance to increase the Scorpion's lead but the FC St Gallen midfielder who helped his Swiss side to promotion to the top flight could only watch as his shot sailed past Nadir Lamyaghri's goal before Captain Toubabo Jarju's free-kick was easily saved by the Moroccan keeper.
Ten minutes later, the Moroccans nearly got an equaliser after Ayoub El Khaliqi found a breach in the Gambian area during a goalmouth scramble but his backheel was neatly saved by Allen. But the Moroccans equalised in the 76th minute with a goal that was almost made out of nothing to silence the noisy Independence Stadium. A ball was floated in the Gambian area from the right side of defence and after substitute Lamin Basmen Samateh failed to connect with the bal, Hussein Kharja was standing at the back post as he scooped the ball in from no more than two yards out to ensure parity.
That goal awakened the Scorpions as they again went on the offensive. It nearly paid off as they were denied a second goal by the brilliant Moroccan keeper who produced a stunning double save to preserve the scoreline. The impressive Demba Savage sent in a cross from the left side of the Morocco defence, which connected with the head of Momodou Ceesay. But the MSK Zilina forward's header was blocked by the keeper before he again denied Pa Modou Jagne with a reflex save on the rebound before the defence pushed the ball behind for a corner.
From the ensuing corner kick, Mamadou Futty Danso found himself unmarked at the back post but couldn't direct his free header well as the ball agonizingly went inches wide for a goal kick before the Moroccan keeper again tipped another goal bound header over. Towards the end of regulation time, Mancini who had earlier replaced Mal Ceesay with Basmen Samateh threw in the final dice hoping to take all three points with the introduction of Saihou Gassama in place of the tired Pa Modou Jagne.
Gassama brought the entire stadium to its feet with his first touch of the ball. Savage who nearly capped off a brilliant evening with another assist lift a pass over the Moroccan defence to release Gassama who had all the time in the world to shoot but couldn't direct his shot down as the ball went over the bar in what proved to be the final kick of the game.
Despite the draw, coupled with Ivory Coast's 2-0 home win over Tanzania in the same Group C, the Scorpions can still take heart from a more encouraging performance compared to the last game that ended in a 2-1 home defeat against the Desert Foxes of Algeria. They have to regroup themselves soon for a June 10th game against the Taifa Stars of Tanzania in Darussalam before the all important AFCON second leg qualifier in Algiers on the 16th.
Another positive thing that Gambians could take out from this game is the performance of goalkeeper Christopher Allen. Chris one year ago was nowhere near the Gamtel first team as he spent the last couple of years warming the bench for Musa Camara. But his move to GPA paid immediate dividends for him.
Not only did he get his career back on track, he also dislodged Camara who has been the regular deputy in the absence of Pa Dembo Touray, from the Scorpions setup. Musa is now fourth on the pecking order as Brikama United keeper Bubacarr Sanyang was the substitute player on the bench on the day and that could be largely attributed to Camara's last performance in the 2-1 defeat to Algeria.