Shift in mentality
Five 1-1 score lines in eight fixtures on the surface suggests the usual cagey opening major tournament skirmishes, however dig a little deeper and you will soon realise that the 2015 AFCON has seen a well-received swing away from the slow methodical action that typified recent tournaments.
A compelling qualification process – jammed into just three international breaks – hinted at the tide changing, whilst fears of Africa returning to recent type once the pressure of tournament football took hold have for now at least been wide of the mark.
Arguably through the first round of group games only Zambia and Ghana could be accused of lacking adventure – intriguingly enough both were punished for closing ranks having acquired an early lead, with Ghana falling victim to Senegal and Zambia dropping two potentially pivotal points against DR Congo.
The opening round of fixtures generated 19 goals – five more than 2013 and four more than in 2012 – yet that number would have been even higher were it not for some questionable finishing.
Further to that, only Burkina Faso failed to register a goal in their tournament bow, although arguably nobody was guiltier of spurning more chances than the Stallions.
The expansive football played in Brazil over the summer has undoubtedly influenced the transformation in approach – just as the worldwide trend for defensively dominated tactics prompted similar methodologies in recent AFCONs.
It remains to be seen whether, like in Brazil, the arrival of do or die football leads to a slightly more retreated attitude.
Pick a winner if you dare
If the series of draws tells us anything, it’s that deciphering exactly who will be raising the trophy aloft represents a task akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
Such has been the competitive nature of the tournament to date that interpreting who will advance into the last eight in itself signifies an arduous.
In particular, the introductory tussles in both groups B and D gave little away with victory not being tasted in either group.
Tunisia and Cameroon had been the anticipated winners of B and D respectively following resurgent qualification campaigns that had seen them reborn from differing elements of ignominy; however both were dealt somewhat of a reality check in their opening encounters.
The Carthage Eagles were arguably fortunate to take a point from Cape Verde who now appear seasoned hands on Africa’s grandest stage, a remarkable accomplishment considering half a decade ago they were firmly in the minnow pool.
In similar fashion, Cameroon were largely second best against a Mali, who disparaged doubts that their reputation as one of Africa’s most formidable tournament teams was a moniker resigned to the past.
Elsewhere highly fancied Algeria toiled for over an hour against South Africa, nonetheless the manner in which the Desert Foxes eventually ran out comfortable winners despite struggling to find second gear is perhaps an ominous sign for the rest – that being said, had Tekilo Rantie’s spotkick found the net and thus handed Bafana Bafana a deserved two goal cushion then outlook would have been somewhat more panicked.
Empty stadium fears rebuffed
Equatorial Guinea’s last stint as hosts was characterised by the depressing sight of stadiums more akin to ghost towns, yet to their credit, the hosts – with a hiccup or two along the way – have ensured relatively full stadia thus far.
The AFCON has always been a tournament typified by its vibrant colourful atmosphere, yet the relocation from the idyllic location of Morocco to the relative unknowns of Equatorial Guinea had led to many virtually writing off the possibility of 2015 being an iconic tournament in this regard.
There have been problems – for instance the persistent reports of substandard hotels, unsatisfactory coach journeys and fans struggling to locate seats – nonetheless considering the incredibly short notice at which Equatorial Guinea took on the tournament, the stand-in hosts deserve significant praise for what has thus far been a commendable attempt in trying circumstances.
Yes the stadia are on the small side – Ebebiyín holds just 5,000 people – but arguably compared to South Africa two years ago – where vast venues were more often than not half full and thus perceived as soulless – the atmosphere created by these unique venues is providing AFCON 2015 with a real sense of character.
The struggling heavy weights
There was always scope for Ghana and Ivory Coast to quickly find choppy waters in Equatorial Guinea. Both have seen, to differing degrees, their stars fade in recent times, whilst hazardous group draws left the pair with plenty of reason for apprehension.
In regards to Ghana, a largely indifferent qualification did little to the ease mood of exasperation back home that had been born out of the most desperate of World Cup campaigns – on top of that the appointment of Avram Grant prior to this tournament’s commencement added further fuel to the fire of frustration.
In defeat to Senegal the Black Stars cut a lethargic outfit, yes the talismanic Asamoah Gyan was absent through a “mild case” of Malaria, but for Grant’s side to carve out just a single shot on goal was a bitter pill to swallow for an expectant public.
With favourites Algeria up next and with Ghana lacking purpose, the next few days could deliver yet another humiliating chapter.
For Ivory Coast who were still considered by some ill-informed voices as favourites – an astounding label considering their countless defensive problems and the history of AFCON failings behind them – the situation is not quite as bleak.
It could even be argued that in avoiding defeat against a Guinea side united by adversity and one possessing the counterattacking prowess to wreak havoc with their creaking backline, les Elephants dodged a bullet.
Nonetheless with Gervinho now suspended following an ungainly swing of the arm and taking account of their typically disjointed showing against Guinea, not even the magic of Herve Renard can at this stage guarantee that they won’t crash and burn at the first hurdle.
The attacking riches are there to avert such a danger, however forming a cohesive from those raw materials remains a problem – unfortunately they can no longer rely on defensive rigidity to nullify that frustrating deficiency.
Senegal lay down a marker
Allocation into the group of death had seen enthusiasm temper surrounding Alain Giresse’s Senegal.
For so long the Teranga Lions have struggled to harness an array of talent into a functioning collective, however under Giresse there is evidence of that trend being bucked. The merited victory over Ghana means that realistically victory over a wounded South Africa would propel the talent littered Senegalese into the last eight.
That neither Papiss Cisse or Moussa Sow were afforded starts against Ghana offers substantial evidence of Senegal’s unrivalled attacking stocks, whilst the news that Saido Mane is nearing full fitness only adds further arsenal to that fearsome artillery – the return of the Southampton man’s guile adds a pivotal differential to a forward line that whilst undoubtedly powerful could be considered one dimensional.
Like any Giresse side, Senegal look likely to prove difficult to beat and with match winners only arguably paralleled by Algeria, the Teranga Lions – with burgeoning momentum behind them – will represent a treacherous proposition for whoever they might meet in the tournament’s business end.