By Solace Chukwu
As far as drama goes, Sunday’s final of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations was the perfect end to the tournament.
A tournament sullied somewhat by gamesmanship ended with goalkeeper Boubacar Barry picking himself up from an iffy ‘cramp’ to fire home the winner. The Elephants’ number one since the legendary Jean-Jacques Tizie hung up his boots in 2007, Barry has been the butt of many jokes in the intervening period. Forced to watch the entire tournament preceding the final from the subs bench, providence contrived to make him the Ivorian liberator.
The Elephants finally shed the ball and chain of glorious failure, with a vast number of the original golden generation shed like ballast, allowing them to alleviate the pressure of expectation. The remnant of that set was solid in Bata: Kolo Toure hardly put a foot wrong, Barry saved two spot kicks and dispatched the winner, Siaka Tiene just about dealt with tournament MVP Christian Atsu, while Yaya Toure was dogged in midfield, though his passing was hit-and-miss.
The real star of the night for the Ivory Coast though, was coach Herve Renard. His plucky Zambia outfit inflicted the most demoralizing of defeats on the Elephants in the 2012 final, and left an impression so great that the Ivorian FA turned to him after a bitterly disappointing World Cup exit. Six months after, he has delivered the Holy Grail.
Remarkably, the suave Frenchman has won two of his four Afcons as a coach, and becomes the first man to win multiple titles with more than one team. He has also never lost a game at the Afcon. Maybe we should all just wear white from now on.
Much like three years ago, this final was a tight tactical battle just how Renard likes it. With Avram Grant in the opposing dugout, it was never likely to be a fiesta of attacking football. However, the first half was actually very interesting: both midfields matched up, both sets of forwards stayed high up against the opposing defence and the action was very end-to-end, bypassing the middle.
Ivory Coast looked to Manchester City striker Wilfried Bony early for knockdowns and one-twos, and tried to feed off him. They played some good combinations through the middle, but just lacked the final pass; their best chance came after a turnover by Baba Abdulrahman, but Max Gradel blazed over.
The Black Stars grew into the game, and dominated the first half thanks to the intelligent movement of Andre Ayew and the positioning of Kwesi Appiah. The on-loan Leicester man played off the clearly unfit Asamoah Gyan, dropping off the front to receive the ball between the lines centrally. The Ivorian back three could not engage him without compromising their shape, so he was the target of persistent fouling.
Andre Ayew was brilliant, diligent in tracking Serge Aurier when the PSG dynamo went forward, but also dragging him narrow to make space for Baba to bomb forward from left-back. Gervinho alternated flanks but is not as disciplined defensively as Gradel, so whenever the Roma man switched to the right, Baba got forward relatively unmarked.
This avenue produced two near-misses: Ayew cut into the centre and found Atsu on the edge of the box, and the 23-year-old curled his effort off the woodwork; then Baba overlapped, played a quick ball into the channel for Ayew, who sliced his cross off the outside of the other upright.
Renard closed off the game, ironically, with an attacking change. Seydou Doumbia came on for Max Gradel in the second half, and Bony shifted to a right-of-centre position. The CSKA Moscow man now pressed the deepest Ghana midfielder, allowing Serey Die to sit deeper and pick up Appiah in front of the defence. Aurier had to supply all the width by himself down the right, and he forced Ayew back impressively. Surprisingly, his crossing was acutely poor and the game just petered out.
There was to be no revenge for 1992 from Ghana, and no redemption for the Ayews, whose father Abedi Pele missed that final through suspension. Indeed, just as 22 kicks decided Ivory Coast as African champions 23 years ago, the same number of kicks have extended the wait for Ghana to at least 35 years.
Both Andre and Jordan were calm from the spot, but Razak Brimah’s decisive miss means the wait for an Afcon medal in the Ayew residence will continue. On this evidence, it might not be for long: Ghana seem on the right track to rebuilding their shattered post-World Cup reputation, and they were the better side in this game. Ultimately, that does not count for much in a penalty shoot-out.
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