For the second Africa Cup of Nations running, the 3rd/4th place play-off will be contested between Mali and Ghana. While reaching this stage once more is a major achievement for both sides, particularly the Malians who are looking to repeat last year’s victory in the play-off, both nations will surely be feeling a huge sense of disappointment no matter who wins on Saturday night.
For Mali, there will certainly be a feeling that having seen off hosts South Africa in the quarter-finals, they simply did not do themselves justice against Nigeria in the semi-finals, particularly in the first-half when the Super Eagles were allowed to race into a three-goal lead. Patrice Carteron’s men headed into the clash in Durban having conceded only three goals in the whole tournament, two of those coming in the group stage from penalties, and so to see their hitherto defensive solidity slip away so dramatically in that opening half against Nigeria was startling.
It leaves Seydou Keita, now 33, facing up to the fact that the climax of his Africa Cup of Nations career will now come in Port Elizabeth in the play-off that no team truly wants to be in, rather than Soccer City and the final in Johannesburg. However, for Mali there remains a sense of over-achievement at reaching the semi-finals. Certainly, Carteron and Keita will not have truly expected such a successful tournament, particularly after finishing third at the last one.
For opponents Ghana on the other hand, the disappointment will surely be so much worse. Having eased their way through the tournament, Ghana were left as the tournament’s clear favourites after South Africa and the Ivory Coast both departed at the quarter-final stage. After all, it was far from certain that an inconsistent Nigeria side would see off an inspired Mali while Ghana were seemingly unlikely to have much trouble against a tired Burkina Faso side in their semi-final, exhausted by their tortuous penalty shoot-out victory over Togo just days earlier on the sand dune-like surface in Nelspruit and shorn of their best player, Alain Traore, through injury.
Thus, after taking an early lead through Mubarak Wakaso from the penalty spot, the Black Stars will regret the way they appeared to take their foot off the gas and allowed the Burkinabe to take control over the rest of the match. Though Ghana did have chances, particularly through Asamoah Gyan, who floundered yet again on the big occasion, in truth Burkina Faso were deserved victors and would not even have needed penalties had the questionable decisions of the referee gone in their favour.
Ghanaian boss Kwesi Appiah was at a loss to explain just how Ghana’s best chance to win their first continental title since 1982 had slipped through their fingers but the sad reality is that they only have themselves to blame and when push came to shove, the Black Stars both physically and mentally simply did not have what it takes. Would the inclusions of Michael Essien, Andre and Jordan Ayew, Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince-Boateng have made a difference? That, we’ll never know.
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