Ghana beat Mali 1-0 in a crucial Orange Africa Cup of Nations Group B clash at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Thursday. In the other group game, Niger claimed its first ever Afcon points with a goalless draw against the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Ghana and Mali were considered the two favourites in Group B prior to the start of the tournament, but on Thursday the Black Stars needed a win more than the Eagles after allowing the DRC to come back from two goals down in their first outing to force a draw, while Mali edged Niger 1-0 with a late goal. Fortunately for coach Kwesi Appiah, his charges delivered the much needed victory.
With a final group match remaining, Ghana now top the standings on four points, Mali has three, DRC two and Niger one.
Playing the early game, Mali had a decent chance to strike early on after goalkeeper Fatawu Dauda handled the ball outside his box and picked up a yellow card.
It could easily have been a red, as Seydou Keita would have been through on goal had the goalkeeper not picked up the ball. Keita took the free kick, but was narrowly wide of DaudaÂ’s right hand post with his effort.
Ghana began to fire away from distance on Mamadou Samassa's goal, but struggled to find their range. Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu then came oh so close to giving the Black Stars the lead in the 33rd minute when he rose high to head towards goal. He beat Samassa, but struck the left-hand post.
Shortly after that, Agyemang-Badu was brought down inside the box by Adama Tamboura and the referee pointed to the spot. Wakaso Mubarak took the penalty kick and duly converted for his third goal in just six internationals.
The second half failed to rise to any great heights, with the match degenerating into a stop-start affair. Mali failed to make an impression on the Ghanaian defence, with Isaac Vorsah leading the way for the Black Stars, while Ghana pushed for a second goal, but couldn't find it.
Cheick Diabate had a chance to snatch a late equaliser for Mali, but he made a mess of a rebound from a corner and Ghana moved to the top of the table.
Apart from Vorsah, Agyemang-Badu, left back Harrison Afful and midfielder Albert Adomah, with good linking play, stood out for Ghana. Diabate and captain Seydou Keita were the best of the Malian players, but for the most part the Eagles were pushed onto the back foot and forced to defend.
'We can do better'
Ghana's coach Kwesi Appiah, although happy with the result, felt his team could improve significantly. "Tactically, the team was much disciplined and there was no loss of concentration. We still got a lot to offer and can do better in our next games," he said.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron conceded that the Black Stars were the better team on the day. He said: "Ghana were better than us in the first half. In the second half, we tried to score but their defenders were good and prevented us from scoring. We have our last game and will try to qualify from it."
Fair share of excitement
Despite there being no goals, the clash between Niger and the DRC produced its fair share of excitement as both teams created good goal scoring opportunities only to be foiled by the respective goalkeepers.
In the fourth minute, Modibo Sidibé should have given Niger an early lead after he robbed defender Larrys Mabiala and burst through on goal, with only the goalkeeper to beat. His low, curling shot struck the base of Muteba Kidiaba's left hand post, however, and the DRC breathed a collective sigh of relief.
In the 13th minute, Dieumerci Mbokani had a good chance to put the Leopards in front. He was picked out with a cross to the far post where he chested the ball down and fired a right footed shot that goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda, who plays for South African Premier Soccer League club Chippa United, did well to parry around the post for a corner.
Daouda then made a brilliant save just before the break, stopping Mbokani again when the DRC had a three-on-one overlap on attack. Mbokani looked odds on to score with the ball at his feet, right in front of goal, almost on the penalty spot, but Daouda shot off his line and threw his body in front of the shot to prevent what looked like a certain goal.
In the second half, Moussa Maâzou tested Kidiaba with a stinging shot and a header, but the DRC net-minder was up to the challenge. Late in the game, Kidiaba pulled off another fine save at full stretch to secure a second draw for the Leopards.
Daouda's save just before the break was perhaps the highlight of the contest, while he received good support on the night from defender Koffi Dan Kowa. Kidiaba was good in the DRC goal, while Mulota Kabangu was at the centre of a number of good attacking forays for the Leopards.
Gernot Rohr, the head coach of Niger, was satisfied with his side's showing, saying afterwards: "I'm very happy with our performance. It was historic as Niger won a point for the first time in the Africa Cup of Nations. You can only be proud of your team when you have such players."
DRC coach Claude le Roy felt his charges had missed out on an opportunity to put pressure on the group's big two of Ghana and Mali. "We did not play well today," he said. "We missed some chances in the first half which we could have scored. I believe we can do better."
The draw means all four teams in Group D are in with a shot at a place in the quarterfinals. One suspects, however, that the pre-tournament favourites, Ghana and Mali, will progress to the next phase. The Black Stars take on Niger in their last outing, while Mali face the DRC.
Ghana celebrate their goal against Mali in a 1-0 Africa Cup of Nations victory at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, 24 January 2013 (Photo: Orange Africa Cup of Nations)