Disgruntled Chelsea striker Didier Drogba scored just nine minutes in and two second half goals were added insurance for Ivory Coast yesterday as Les Éléphants, my pre-tournament pick to win the whole thing, cruised to a 3-0 win over Mali. Mali came into this game knowing they really needed a result because Nigeria was playing the lightweight of the group, Benin, but they just looked overmatched at times. When Fredi Kanoute was substituted for Momo Sissoko in the 46th minute, you just knew the match was over. The victory capped a perfect group stage for Ivory Coast with three wins in as many matches and more importantly, allowed them to avoid Group A winner Ghana in the quarterfinals.
Nigeria knew exactly what they needed to do yesterday: beat Benin. The Super Eagles had to take care of business there and then hope Ivory Coast would beat Mali, and everything went according to plan if you’re rooting for Nigeria. Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel scored once on a header and then set up Yakubu in the 86th minute to seal the deal for Nigeria, who overcame a lackluster first half performance to win the game 2-0. Amazingly enough, those two goals were the first two scored by Nigeria all tournament, even though they have pretty impressive attacking talent on the roster, including three legitimate 10-12 goals-a-season guys in Kanu, Obafemi Martins, and Yakubu.
Nigeria squeaked through by the skin of their teeth as they ended up on the same number of points (4) as Mali. The Super Eagles’ superior goal differential (+1 > -2)meant they advanced ahead of Mali, who started the tournament in such fine fashion. For Nigeria, an early exit would have been viewed as a huge disappointment and one that surely would have cost German coach Berti Vogts his job.
The quarterfinal bracket, at least as far as Groups A and B are concerned, is now set. Ghana, the winner of Group A and the hosts of the tournament, will play Nigeria in Accra. Ivory Coast, the winner of Group B, will play Guinea in Sekondi. I’m not going to make any predictions yet, but I don’t think this second game is going to be very close.
Final Group B Standings (Teams in bold advance):
1. Ivory Coast (9 points, +7 goal differential)
2. Nigeria (4 pts, +1 GD)
3. Mali (4 pts, -2 GD)
4. Benin (0 pots, -6 GD)
Group C finishes group play today and things are still definitely up for grabs. Cameroon plays Sudan and will very likely win that game. If they do, they’ll advance, but whether it’s as the group winner or group runner-up is to be determined. In the other game, Egypt, the defending champions and current group leader, will contend with a Zambian side that smells a chance to reach the quarterfinals. They can do so by beating Egypt by at least three goals (unlikely), winning while Cameroon does not, or getting a draw while Cameroon loses.