MALABO, Equatorial Guinea – Once again, the African Cup of Nations didn’t disappoint as tight games, penalty shootout drama and off-field controversy punctuated the tournament. The Ivory Coast finally ended their 23-year continental hoodoo to claim the trophy but there were plenty of other storylines that got the heart racing.
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Second only to the Oscars in gongs-given-in-the-past-24 hours, here are Sport360’s AFCON 2015 Awards.
The organisers awarded the MVP to Christian Atsu but Ivory Coast full-back Aurier would have won had the bias towards offensive talent not existed, as the PSG defender showed what a fantastic talent he is during this tournament.
Serge Aurier has his beard cut off after losing a bet with Ivory Coast assistant coach, Patrice Beaumelle. pic.twitter.com/kVibp7Sv3q
— Joe Crann (@YesWeCrann) February 8, 2015
Already on the radars of many during the World Cup, with a proposed big move to Arsenal never quite coming off, Aurier shunned his average recent form in Ligue 1 to put in some magnificent showings during his country’s run to glory.
Athletic and incredibly gifted with the ball at his feet, he fitted perfectly into the three-at-the-back system that Renard introduced to this team, with his athletic running style and outrageous crossing ability combining to cause havoc going forward. He was equally competent in his defensive work, fighting for every ball and remaining disciplined throughout.
Scoring a spot-kick in the penalty shootout victory over Ghana in the final, the encouragement and relationship he had with his teammates showed what an important player he is for his country, and is destined to lead the Ivory Coast at some point in his career.
There was only really one answer to this. Even if his team had crashed out in the quarter-finals, Herve Renard would have been up there for what he has achieved with this Ivory Coast team, transforming them into the complete opposite of what they were six months ago – turning them into a continent-toppling side.
Whilst the work done by Esteban Becker and Florent Ibenge at Equatorial Guinea and DR Congo was absolutely excellent as well, Renard has secured his place in the record books of African football management in the most fantastic way possible, stamping his authority on this team, allowing them to discover their well of potential and becoming the first manager to win AFCON with two different sides.
His work has been well-documented, but it’s difficult to go overboard. Defensively they were an embarrassment when he took over. Watching them made you disappointed when you remembered that this was supposedly one of the continent’s greatest teams, and the way he has introduced this rigid discipline to the backline has been very impressive, as it all came together as the tournament started.
Building on the work of Francis Zahoui from three years ago – who instilled a similar pragmatism – they key for Renard was the mental work. This was a side whose failures have been numerous , so to coach them to become a team who could stomach another final and another penalty shootout at last is a fine achievement, in one of the most challenging aspects of coaching
In terms of tactical battles that matched in entertainment as they did in intrigue, this cannot be beaten. While the goal-fest of DR Congo and Congo (4-2) did give the tournament some life, it’s difficult to dismiss this match from the reckoning, as arguably the two best teams of the competition slugged it out for a place in the semi-finals.
The staunch Elephants came up against the patient Fennecs, as both teams produced their best performances up to that point, with neither deserving to go home at this relatively early stage. Algeria’s slow, possession-based build up play proved no match for the disciplined backline of Renard’s making, as Ivory Coast took a 1-0 lead with a goal from Max Gradel.
The second half saw the infamously stubborn Christian Gourcuff set his team up differently, as they tempted Ivory Coast out of their deep hovel using the great pace they have in their forward line, with Hilel Soudani eventually finding the back of the net.
Set pieces were to be their undoing however, as Wilfried Bony popped up from a corner to nod the ball in to regain Ivory Coast’s lead – with the new Manchester City striker then adding another to secure the win. Fascinating and captivating from first minute until the last, this was as good a 90 minutes at African Cup of Nations 2015 saw.
Emerging from genuine obscurity, Equatorial Guinea goalkeeper Felipe Ovono proved himself to be one of the finest youngsters at this competition, as a key member of the team that defied expectation and made it a tournament that their fans will remember for some time.
Making more saves than any other goalkeeper at AFCON, the 21-year-old was one of five players in the national team squad to play their football domestically, as a player of Deportivo Mongomo – a member of the semi-professional Equatoguinean Premier League. Thrust into the national team set-up as part of the hasty preparation they were forced into making for this tournament, he has risen to the occasion, making himself a clear favourite with the home crowd.
Beating the likes of Baba Rahman, Wilfried Kanon, Eric Bailly and Chancel Mbemba to this award, quite how long Ovono continues to play football in his home country remains to be seen.
This meeting of continental giants in the Group C was supposed to be the awakening of this tournament; 90 minutes of exciting football to set the competition alight and set a precedent for the remainder. In the end, however, it turned out to be quite different.
Labouring in the Estadio de Mongomo, it encapsulated the incredibly average second round of group games that took place at AFCON 2015, as two decent sides failed to get into gear at all. The Algerians – unable to develop their patient passing play on the torrid, uneven pitch – played easily their worst game of the tournament, as their underperformance was eventually punished with a late, late winner from Asamoah Gyan – in a game that neither side deserved to win.
Indeed, it was a match that represented Ghana’s Cup of Nations in many ways – scraping through matches without ever really getting going.
Source of so much hope and so many predictions, Burkina Faso comprehensively failed to recreate the magic they conjured up in 2013, suffocating under the pressure of expectation that forced them to collapse to the ground whilst still in the group stage.
The dark horses of 2013 who ended up disappointing losers in the final against Nigeria, 2015 couldn’t have been more different, as they scored a single goal in three matches to finish bottom of one of the supposed easiest groups in the competition – one they were expected to breeze through on route to another deep run into the tournament.
— Stephen Ayoo (@steifmaster88) February 9, 2015
Losing 2-0 against Gabon in the first game, they were totally outplayed at their own counter-attacking game – by an evidently superior side, a host of missed chances kicked off a dire tournament for the Stallions. A 0-0 draw with Equatorial Guinea followed, before they eventually scored a goal in the final game against Congo, as they lost 2-1 to see them and Gabon crash out in a flame of disappointment.
Lying on the pitch, seemingly unable to continue his country’s quarter-final match-up with neighbours Congo, Gabriel Zakuani’s woes were compounded in comical fashion – as the mechanical steed sent onto the pitch to aid him kicked him whilst he was down.
— Jack Chape (@JWChape) February 2, 2015
Occurring while his DR Congo side were 1-0 down, prior to their brilliant comeback that made it 4-2, Zakuani became a brief internet sensation. Speeding onto the pitch to transport the Peterborough defender to the bench for treatment, in one of the more unnecessary additions to injury management football has seen in recent years, either the driver had some beef with Zakuani or simply was unable to control the vehicle he was in charge of, as he bumped into the leg of the defeated centre-back.
Seemingly unconcerned by the event, Zakuani looked confusingly at his attacker, before returning to focus on the treatment he was receiving. With no grudge, he limped forgivingly onto the vehicle, before it carted him off to the bench without issue.
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