Côte d'Ivoire and Tunisia snatched wins in Group D as the first round of group stage matches in the 2013 Orange Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) was completed on Tuesday. While they won, both teams were pushed all the way by Togo and Algeria respectively.
With only one win from the previous six Afcon matches played, the other groups are pretty congested after the first round of games, but for the losers in Group D the path to the quarterfinals has become a lot tougher. Both Togo and world number 22 Algeria could be considered unfortunate to lose, but the fact is they now face an uphill climb to advance beyond the group stages.
The clash between Côte d'Ivoire and Togo at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, just outside Rustenburg, was played at a slow tempo, with both teams content to let the other carry the ball forward until deep in the opposing half where they were met by two lines of defending players.
While big name striker Didier Drogba failed to make any sort of impact for the Elephants, his fellow forward Gervinho was full of running and injected pace into the contest every time he touched the ball.
Just behind the strikers, Yaya Toure was a class apart. He provided an outlet time after time, his pinpoint passing initiated attacks, and he was also a danger in front of goal, scoring once and hitting an upright too. Toure's ability to control a game is an ability that has for the most part been missing from teams in other Afcon games.
Togo's biggest gun Emmanuel Adenbayor came close to giving his side an early lead but, after pouncing on a shocking error at the back by Kolo Toure, he was denied by an excellent save from goalkeeper Boubacar Barry.
Gervinho then did good work down the right flank before passing backwards of square to Yaya Toure in the box, who finished well to give the Ivorians an early lead.
The match meandered towards the break until Toure hit an upright with a snap shot after good work from Gervinho again.
Right on the half-time whistle, Togo stunned Côte d'Ivoire with a goal. There were plenty of players back to help defend a corner, but Jonathan Ayite got onto the end of the ball and directed into the goal with his right foot from close range to level the scores.
Shortly after the break, the Togolese had the ball in the back of the ElephantsÂ’ net, but the referee disallowed the goal, ruling that a substitution had not been completed before a corner kick was taken.
Yet another draw appeared to be on the cards until the 88th minute when Gervinho met a free kick at the far post and steered the ball into the net. His shot with the outside of his right boot went unchallenged after the goalkeeper had misjudged the flight of the ball.
Togo forced a save out of Barry from close range just before the final whistle sounded and the tournament favourites claimed a 2-1 victory.
Apart from Yaya Toure and Gervinho, Barry and Dider Zakora turned in good performances for the Ivorians, while, for Togo, Vincent Bossou kept Didier Drogba quiet, Serge Akakpo controlled their midfield and Serge Gakpe gave the Ivory Coast defenders plenty to think about.
The clash between North African rivals Algeria and Tunisia was controlled by the Algerians, but it was the Eagles of Carthage who came away with the win after beautifully taken goal by Youssef Msakni in the 91st minute saw them snatch a 1-0 victory.
The match was played at a livelier tempo than the earlier game, which took place in much higher temperatures.
Just before the half-hour mark, Islam Slimani struck the Tunisian crossbar after rising well to head towards goal. Tunisia then tested the Algerians with a swift counter-attack shortly before half-time.
Fennec Foxes pushing forward
Still, it was the Fennec Foxes forcing Tunisia back and Djamel Mesbah flashed a left-footed shot across the face of the Tunisian goal, which was narrowly wide of the left-hand upright.
Adlène Guedioura then blasted a vicious, swerving shot from range just over the goal. Algeria continued to press forward and had a penalty turned down 18 minutes from time.
When Tunisia created some space, Hamdi Harbaoui failed to hit the target from close in and should have done much better.
Wonderfully measured shot
With the contest into time added on, Msakni received a ball in the left inside channel, a little outside AlgeriaÂ’s box. He cut back inside and then curled a wonderfully measured shot beyond the reach of the goalkeeper into the top left hand corner to steal a victory for Tunisia. It was the kind of composed finish that has been missing from Afcon 2013 so far and it was worthy of being a match-winning goal.
Algeria were stunned by the defeat. Tunisia celebrated wildly.
Defender Guedioura stood out for Algeria, showing attacking intent along with striker Slimani, while Mesbah worked his way forward well down the left flank to give the Fennec Foxes an extra attacking option.
Tunisia were under the gun for most of the game, but Msakni's winner was a true highlight, while Saber Khelifa worked hard up front, but could have done with more support.
Looking back on the first Group D games, favourites Côte d'Ivoire looked very comfortable on the ball, but one would expect more intensity from such a highly rated team. Togo did not look overwhelmed by their opponents' reputation and could spring a surprise or two, but they are the underdogs among the four sides.
Algeria showed some good play between the boxes, but lacked finishing and Tunisia, frankly, despite their win, will need to do more to make a big impression in the tournament.