Cameroon is the first finalist of the 2008 African Cup of nations. Burdened by pressure, injuries, and suspensions, the Black Stars of Ghana didn’t manage to pull yet another miracle in front of their own crowd, and will be forced to compete for the lowest step of the podium on Saturday. It took the Indomitable Lions a little while, but starting from the playoff stage of this competition (the quarter-finals vs. Tunisia, and the semi-finals today vs. Ghana) they have really shown off the pride that has always been the team’s trademark and which, coupled with undeniable skill, has made Cameroon the football reference point of the African continent these past years.
Cameroon manager Otto Pfister (someone with a very large experience with coaching in Africa, having been at the helm of nations such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Ghana itself for 6 years) opted once again for a strong and sturdy midfield, with Alexander Song (the nephew of captain Rigobert) and Stéphane Mbia operating in front of the backline behind Achille Emana. The two defensive mids would repay the confidence put in them 10-fold, being absolutely capital in slowing down the Ghanaian maneuvers and recovering a countless number of balls during today’s match. Up front, scoring duties were left to current ACN topscorer (with 5 goals) Samuel Eto’o, supported by Joseph-Désiré Job and Mohammadou Idrissou.
On the other end, Ghana coach Claude Le Roy was left without captain John Mensah (suspended for one match after his red card against Nigeria) and thus fielded Michael Essien in the defensive backline, hoping the Chelsea midfielder would be able to contain Eto’o’s offensive exuberance. Essien would do a very good job for the entire game today, but many will wonder if the outcome of the match would have been different had Essien been present in midfield, ready to give his important contribution to the Black Stars’ offensive efforts. Up front, Manuel Agogo was chosen as the lone striker, supported by Sulley Muntari and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie on the sides.
The first half of the match was, to quote the BBC commentary, “scrappy and cagey, with very little goalmouth action, largely due to poor passing”. Still, there were a few opportunities worth the mention in the first 45 minutes: an Eric Addo near-missed header in minute 5 (running forward on a Muntari free-kick, the Ghana center-back somehow failed to connect with the ball), as well as a very good run of André Ayew (the son of Ghana and African legend Abedi Pelé) at the end of which the midfielder cut inside and forced goalkeeper Carlos Kameni into action with a low drive. Oh there was also a 40-yard free-kick by Geremi, smashing a vicious, swerving strike onto the woodwork, with the keeper Richard Kingson not even hinting a move. Overall, despite a Ghanaian territorial domination, the half ended with a 0-0 scoreline.
In the 2nd half, Ghana stepped up the pressure to try and get on the scoreboard but much like their Cameroon counterparts, most of their plays ended up hitting the opposing backline without any real penetrating power. In the case of the Black Stars they had the added problem of having to deal with the ever-present Rigobert Song, who was absolutely rock-solid the entire match and showed many bits of pure defensive class.
Around minute 62, John Paintsil had a good opportunity for Ghana when a Muntari corner-kick found him unmarked inside the box, but the West Ham defender headed wide. Minutes later, Cameroon dodged another bullet when Geremi deflected an Andre Ayew‘s goalbound half-volley from inside the box. Clearly, if there was anyone that deserved to be ahead (in terms of ball possession and near-scoring chances) it was the home team.
However in minute 70, Cameroon really stunned the crowd of the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra, with a real dagger-thrust on a brilliantly-executed counter-attack. Starting from a cleared Ghana corner, JoÃ«l Epalle received a long ball forward, layed it off to Eto’o who immediately sent Alain Nkong through behind the Ghana backline. The Atlante midfielder (for those who are wondering, that’s a… Mexican club!) finished it nicely past Kingson to put the Lions in the lead!! 1-0 Cameroon.
The Black Stars were really shaken at finding themselves one goal down, but they didn’t give in: they continued to push up, rallied by the home crowd’s noisy support in the stands. Unfortunately, by trying to send long passes forward over to their front strikers, Ghana wasted a good number of balls because they were clearly suffering the Cameroonians’ superior heading ability. Eventually, Nottingham Forest striker Junior Agogo had two great chances to draw his team level: firstly he was denied by Carlos Kameni through on the right side of the box. Minutes later, a Muntari free-kick found him unmarked inside the box, but Agogo squandered the chance by heading over the bar from an excellent position!
Coach Le Rey played the move of desperation by replacing Ayew with Mohamed Barusso, but there was little the Roma player (now on loan to Galatasaray) could contribute to the final 5 minute of the match, except for a ballooned free-kick opportunity before the referee’s final whistle.
There was still time for one final bizarre event, when Cameroon’s Andre Bikey received a straight red for violent play. The medical team were attending to a Cameroon player on the pitch, when the Reading defender violently pushed one of the medics over (apparently concerned that he had stepped over one of his teammates). A shame for Bikey, who will now be suspended for Sunday’s final.
At the end of the day, with many Ghana players in tears after the final whistle, their Nations Cup dreams shattered, Cameroon will seeking a record-equalling fifth title, having won the tournament in 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2002. Current record-holders Egypt will be seeking to increment their record to six, after beating Ivory Coast 4-1 in the other semi-final (full report on Soccerlens).
Marco Pantanella is the author and editor of the mCalcio blog