Egypt defended their 2006 African Cup of Nations championship successfully today in a 1-0 victory over Cameroon, giving the Pharaohs a record 6th continental title.
It was a rematch of the opening game in Group C, a 4-2 Egyptian victory. Mohamed Zidan scored twice in that game for the winners and his success against Cameroon continued today. The Hamburg striker came on as a substitute, won the ball off Galatasaray and Cameroon defender Rigobert Song in a hard-fought battle at the corner of the 18-yard box, and then played the ball square to Mohamed Aboutreika. Aboutreika was in alone on goal and slotted the ball coolly into the net in the 77th minute for his fourth goal of the tournament; obviously none of which were as important as that one.
Song nearly redeemed himself in an effort to equalize for Cameroon at the very end, but his header from a Geremi cross went over the net. Geremi, the Newcastle midfielder, had a particularly good game for Cameroon in a losing effort; his pinpoint free kicks, crossing, and passing caused a lot of trouble for the Egyptian defenders but in the end, they were able to keep the clean sheet.
Cameroon suffered an early blow as Arsenal starlet Alexandre Song had to be taken off after only a quarter of an hour due to a nagging injury he’d taken into the final. Song’s absence freed up space in the midfield and allowed Egypt’s five midfielders to have their way in that crucial area of the pitch.
Egypt’s only Premiership player, Middlesbrough midfielder Mohamed Shawky, entered as a late substitute after starting multiple games in the tournament previously for the Pharaohs. I would expect to see some players from this Egyptian team receive offers to play overseas as most of them play their club soccer domestically, but they’ll need to be financially lucrative because they currently get paid very well at Al-Ahly, Zamalek, and Al-Zamalek, the three teams for which most of these players ply their trade.
Cameroon’s lineup included Geremi and Song from the Premiership, as well as star Barcelona striker and leading goalscorer at this tournament, Samuel Eto’o.
I did pick Ivory Coast to win this tournament before it started but when they lost, I will admit (and you can go back to look at my semifinal recap for proof) that I hopped on the Egyptian bandwagon and went with the Pharaohs to beat Cameroon today. For Egypt, this sixth title has to be one of the most special because they defended their 2006 championship and proved most pundits, including me, wrong for tabbing either Ghana or Ivory Coast to win this edition.
In yesterday’s Third Place Game, I was happy to see that both Ghana and Ivory Coast came out to play and showed passion instead of just playing out the string. Ghana, the host nation, emerged with a 4-2 victory after scoring three times in the last 20 minutes of the match.
Portsmouth midfielder Sulley Muntari opened the scoring in the 10th minute with an absolute rocket of a free kick. Muntari’s sweet left foot was responsible for three goals in this tournament and he set up a couple others as well. This is a player who really stood out to me during the 2006 World Cup, when he played in an integral role in Ghana’s run to the Round of 16. I selected him as my “Top Newcomer” to the Premiership in my preseason awards (my predictions for end-of-season superlatives), and his play in the Premiership and African Cup of Nations has supported that pick.
Ivory Coast equalized and then took a 2-1 lead through a pair of first-half goals from Werder Bremen striker Boubacar Sanogo, who was making his first start of the tournament. Sanogo nearly finished off a natural hat trick in the 39th minute, but his left-footed shot came off the crossbar and out after he was played in by Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, who had a decent game himself today.
Ghana then took the match by the horns and ended the game by scoring three consecutive goals, one of which came from former MLS star and current Nottingham Forest player Junior Agogo.
This was a match that Ivory Coast could have put to bed in the first half by capitalizing on their chances when they already had a 2-1 lead, but they left the hosts in the game and paid for it in the end.
The Black Stars played the entire tournament without their captain and talismanic central midfielder, Stephen Appiah, who was sitting out with a blood clot in his knee. With Appiah and Muntari in the lineup together, Ghana could have won this tournament but will now be looking to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. A third place finish is nothing to be ashamed of and French coach Claude LeRoy will look to build from the momentum established here.
On the other hand, Ivory Coast will be bitterly disappointed with finishing fourth. They were a trendy pick to win this competition and now have to redeem themselves in 2010, which they should be able to do because of their squad’s relatively young combined age right now. The players will be in their primes in 2010 and honestly, they’ll have to make a statement in South Africa because this is a team that could be on a downward, rebuilding slide after that tournament.
Congratulations to Egypt for winning and to Ghana, both for finishing third and for putting on a successful, entertaining tournament. This is what soccer is all about and hopefully the next African Cup of Nations (Angola-2010) will be widely available on TV here in the US.