The Ivory Coast again needed a late Max-Alain Gradel goal just to earn a draw at the Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday, while Cameroon were held by Guinea in the tightest group in the competition.
The Ivorians drew 1-1 with Mali before Cameroon and Guinea drew by the same scoreline in Malabo in Group D, which has now seen four matches all end one apiece and will go right down to the wire.
With star forward Gervinho missing due to suspension after being sent off in the opening stalemate with Guinea, Herve Renard’s Elephants fell behind at the Estadio de Malabo in the seventh minute of an eventful west African derby through one of the goals of the tournament so far.
Sambou Yatabare hung a cross from the right flank to the back post, where Wolverhampton Wanderers winger Bakary Sako connected with a sweet half-volley that flew into the net.
With captain Yaya Toure toiling in a deep-lying midfield role, the Ivorians were struggling, although Kolo Toure did have a header turned against the bar just after the half-hour mark.
In an effort to turn the game around, Renard sent on Gradel for his Saint-Etienne colleague Ismael Diomande before the interval, and it was the little winger who eventually rescued his side.
Only four minutes remained when Salomon Kalou and Serge Aurier combined to set up Gradel, who slotted low past Mali’s substitute goalkeeper Germain Berthe, on for the injured Soumaila Diakite.
“There were lots more good things today than in the first match but unfortunately we went behind early on,” lamented Renard.
Mali had lost every previous meeting with the Ivory Coast at the Cup of Nations, including in the 2012 semi-finals, but the Eagles still saw the draw as a missed opportunity.
“We are very disappointed that, for the second time in a row, we have conceded a goal at the end of the match,” said the Eagles’ Polish coach Henryk Kasperczak, who took the Ivorians to third place at the 1994 Cup of Nations.
Cameroon came from behind to draw with Mali in their opening game, but against Guinea on Saturday it was the Indomitable Lions who struck first.
Benjamin Moukandjo’s corner went straight into the net to open the scoring on 13 minutes, but a marvellous finish by Ibrahima Traore, arrowed low into the far corner of the net, brought Guinea level just before the break.
Afterwards, Borussia Moenchengladbach winger Traore, who has now won two man of the match awards in as many games, revealed his confidence that previously unfancied Guinea will qualify for the last eight.
“I’m pretty sure that we will qualify because we have the quality and we fear nobody. So now it’s time to win this game against Mali and do something good for the country,” he said.
With a decisive game against the Ivory Coast to come, Cameroon forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting warned: “Now it’s the last match that counts. We came here to win of course, but we are building a new team.”
– Tight –
Remarkably, with all 16 teams having played two group games, nobody has yet managed to qualify for the quarter-finals of what is proving to be one of the tightest Nations Cups in memory.
Algeria are the only team to have scored more than twice in a game, doing so in their opening 3-1 win over South Africa in Group C.
And there have been a total of 10 draws in 16 matches so far, unheard of since the competition expanded to include 16 nations for the first time in 1996.
If the final two Group D games were also to end 1-1, then the drawing of lots would be required to decide who progresses to the last eight.
Meanwhile, ahead of the final round of matches on Sunday, Group A is not quite so tight.
Congo Brazzaville and Gabon are out in front, and both need only draw their games in order to progress.
Claude Le Roy’s Congo take on 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso in Ebebiyin while Gabon face Equatorial Guinea in Bata, with the hosts having to win to go through.