Burkina Faso had the lion’s share of the chances in their opening match against Gabon but it was the Gabonese who were more clinical in front of goal. The 2-0 defeat still stings and Burkina Faso’s strikers Jonathan Pitroipa and Alain Traoré will have to be far more ruthless if their side hopes to maintain an interest in the tournament.
But it may be difficult for the 2013 runners-up as the hosts will be roared on by more than 30,000 fervent partisans at the national stadium in Bata. Esteban Becker’s men will be confident of establishing a foothold in the Cup of Nations which has already confirmed its reputation for unpredictability.
Senegal coach Alain Giresse touched on this quirkiness before his side launched their campaign.
“Ghana were at the 2014 World Cup. At the World Cup in 2010 they were really on song and nearly qualified for the semi-finals,” he reflected. “This current squad is in the mould of those teams and are rightly one of the favourites.”
Giresse, who took Mali to third place at the 2013 Cup of Nations in South Africa, added: “At the past few tournaments it’s not always the favourites who get to the final. The Cup of Nations is strange like that. At the World Cup you usually see the favourites in the final.”
Certainly after the first round of games the eight matches produced five draws and three victories.
None of the putative big guns blasted their way past their opponents. Algeria, Africa’s top ranked team, were decidedly second best for the first hour of their Group C game against South Africa who had a chance to take a 2-0 lead.
But when 1-0 up, Tokelo Rantie missed a penalty and Algeria exploited their fortune to win 3-1. It was an impressive looking score line but it masked the reality of the match.
“The best team lost the game,” rued the South Africa coach Shakes Mashaba. “After we missed the penalty everything went differently. Our team played very well. I must say Algeria were very lucky to come back. We had already lost focus when they came back and scored those goals. “
No-one queried Mashaba’s analysis. The Algeria coach Christian Gourcouff said his players suffered from South Africa’s direct style and admitted they did well to snatch the victory.
Ghana’s entry ended in a setback.
The west African heavyweights went down 2-1 to Senegal in Group C. On paper Senegal are the weakest of the teams. They finished second in their qualifying group while the other three outfits all topped their pools.
This inferiority complex clearly stirred them. It has certainly shaken Ghana. The Black Stars face the prospect of elimination if they lose their game against Algeria on Friday in Mongomo. For a team that has reached the semi-finals in the past four tournaments, such an exit would be ignominy incarnate. It might cost new coach Avram Grant his job.
“The first day that I arrived I spoke with the squad,” the former Chelsea boss said following the defeat. “I told them I want to see how they react when we have difficult days because in sport we have difficult days. Spain won the World Cup in 2010 after losing their first game against Switzerland . Despite the defeat, I saw lots of positive things. We’ll take those and go forward. This spirit is one of the things I want to see in my teams.”
Côte d’Ivoire also failed to gleam in their opening game.
Striker Gervinho has been touted as one of the big names of the tournament. But the Roma star will not feature in his country’s second match against Mali on Saturday after being sent off against Guinea in the opening game. The Ivorians scrambled a draw.
Hardly the stuff of anointed champions who boast Yaya Touré, the reigning African player of the year, in their midst.
During his playing career Giresse formed one of the most mythical midfield formations the game has known. With Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Luis Fernandez, the carré magique took France to the 1984 European title and twice to the brink of World Cup glory. His is an experience that has tasted the agonies and the ecstasies of the sport.
The eight opening games have merely served to underline his opinion that the trophy is there for the taking. Zambia claimed it in 2012, Burkina Faso reached the final before losing to Nigeria. Underdogs, it appears, find a happy hunting ground at the Africa Cup of Nations.