When the 2008 African Cup of Nations began on January 20, few would have put any serious amount of money on Egypt as tournament winners. Despite entering the competition as title holders, the Pharaohs were ranked 6th in the outright betting charts (odds 14/1), far behind big-name favorites such as Ghana (3/1), Ivory Coast (7/2), and Cameroon (6/1).
Yet despite the unfavorable pre-tournament odds, the Egyptians really surprised everyone match after match, displaying a disciplined tactical organization, a great spirit of teamwork and sacrifice, as well as a newfound glory for their iconic goalkeeper Essam Al Hadari. In the end, it doesn’t matter much if their victory in the ACN final stemmed from a tremendous defensive blunder: over the course of playoffs and the tournament as a whole, the Egyptian Pharaohs deserved their 2008 African Cup of Nations trophy, the record-breaking sixth title of their history.
Tactically, Egypt is the team which at end of this tournament demonstrated the most rational and organized approach to a line-up formation: a 3-4-1-2 tactic that manager Hassan Shehata never modified since game 1, instead utilizing his roster to the best of its potential and inserting his key players when time required. The best three examples of this approach can be found with captain Ahmed Hassan (suspended for the first two games, slowly making his way into the starting line-up), Mohamed Aboutreika (author of the winning goal today, despite not being in the best physical shape at the start of the tournament), and Mohamed Zidan (recovering from injury during the playoff stage, he was the author of the assist for Aboutreika’s goal).
In a team that has made teamwork its main weapon of choice (lacking a “star” player in the traditional sense of the word, unlike Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, Ghana’s Michael Essien, or Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o), each individual’s contribution to the team effort was capital: from the timely runs forward of wingers Ahmed Fathi and Sayed Moawad, to the attentive Egyptian defense lead by the best goalkeeper of the tournament, 35 year-old Essam El-Hadary.
On the other end, Indomitable Lions’ coach Otto Pfister chose a more traditional approach to the game with a “safe” 4-4-2 formation, lead by the the expert hands of Idriss Carlos Kameni in net and the experience of center-back captain Rigobert Song (author of an excellent ACN tournament… until tonight that is). The German coach’s plan was to base the game on physical power (Cameroon’s superior ability) and defensive tactics, hoping that a few well-adjusted stabs of Samuel Eto’o, supported by the likes of Achille Emana, JoÃ«l Epalle, Alexandre Song, and semi-final hero Alain Nkong (who partnered up with the Barça striker in attack) were going to be a winning strategy.
Unfortunately, none of these players would prove decisive today (with the exception of captain Song, for other unglorious reasons). Song’s nephew Alexandre would be forced to an early substitution in minute 15 (muscular injury), Emana would surprise many viewers today with gross mistakes (for a player of his level) in control & passing distribution, while Nkong (much like Eto’o) would be largely unproductive the entire match (also because of the pressure applied by the attentive Egyptian defense).
After the first 45 minutes of the match came to a close, it was fairly evident that one team was dominating the other, not necessarily in terms of an overwhelming amount of scoring chances (quite the contrary in fact), but rather in terms of ball possession. Egypt’s collective movement allowed the Pharaohs to get much nearer their opponents’ net than Cameroon, and as a result the few opportunities the first half did create, came essentially in favor of Hassan Shehata’s side.
Among the chances worth mentioning: a 35-yard shot by Aboutreika in minute 13 (pushed around the post by Kameni), two back-to-back chances for Moteab and Aboutreika (respectively parried away and wide) 5 minutes later, and an excellent Moteab chance inside the area (9 minutes before half-time), on which Kameni summoned his best reflexes to keep the score goalless. Cameroon in all of this? A timid Geremi instep free-kick, accurate and well-placed but with not enough power to worry Al-Hadari.
Cameroon came back from the break with purpose, causing the tempo of the match to increase, but Egypt quickly took control of the game again. Kameni had to make two more fine saves, from a close-range Amr Zaki shot, then from Hosni Abd-Rabou’s 25-yard cracker. If there was anyone keeping the Indomitable Lion boat afloat today, it was the Espanyol goalkeeper.
The Pharaohs continued to pile on pressure, eventually obtaining their single best chance on net yet: in minute 61, an Aboutreika cross from the right wing found an unmarked Hosni inside the box, but the header of the Ismaily SC midfielder (who will probably now be destined for Europe, on account of his excellent performances in the tournament), hit the base of the post and went wide.
With 13 minutes remaining, Egypt finally got the goal they deserved, but not without some great help of Cameroon captain Rigobert Song who paid a heavy price for his untidy defending. Intercepting an Egyptian pass from the right wing, the ex-Liverpool and West Ham defender controlled the ball awkwardly and eventually ended up losing it in a battle with Mohamed Zidan. A battle which brought the pair all the way back to Cameroon’s penalty box, i.e. the danger zone. By the time the other Cameroon center-back arrived to help out, Zidan managed to poke the ball across goal for a now completely unmarked Mohamed Aboutreika. The Al-Ahly midfielder armed a precise instep finish low into the bottom right corner, putting his team in the lead! 1-0 Egypt.
As Egypt celebrated, Song covered his face with his shirt, knowing that he should have cleared the ball away. He had a half-chance to redeem himself minutes later, when he found himself in good position for a headed finish on Geremi’s right-wing cross, but alas his effort ended over the bar.
As the referee called full time, it was a triumph for the Egyptian team and coach Hassan Shehata, who became only the second coach to win successive trophies (the first being Ghana’s CK Gyamfi, who won the tournament in 1963 and 1965). The Pharaohs, who now hold the record of ACN Championship titles (six), also won the first two editions of the tournament (1957 and 1959). With the competition far more intense now, the victories in 2006 and 2008 have far greater significance, and should really motivate the players into qualifying for their first FIFA World Cup since 1990.
Marco Pantanella is the Chief Editor of Soccerlens, and also the author & editor of mCalcio.com