Mo Salah scores the all-important penalty to steer Egypt into 2021 AFCON quarterfinals

Hero for the Pharaohs

* To face fellow north Africans Morocco

* Equatorial Guinea beat Mali to face Senegal

* Gambia v Cameroun; Burkina Faso v Tunisia

* AFCON is the most important competition to me—Mo Salah

By Duncan Mlanjira

Egypt’s Mohammed Salah — who prior to the Round of 16 match played on Wednesday said the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) was a trophy wants to win most — scored the all-important penalty to steer the Pharaohs into the quarterfinals and make a date with fellow north Africans Morocco on Sunday.

The record seven-time champions — 1957, 1959, 1986, 1998 and back-to-back in 2006, 2008 and 2010 — all from 25 appearances, kept their cool in the nerve-racking penalties to beat fellow tournament favourites, Cote d’Ivoire.

Substitute goalkeeper Mohamed Daader helped the cause when he saved Eric Bailly’s spot kick, leaving the task to Mo Salah as the last of the five penalty takers to do the needful.

In the other last Round of 16 match, Equatorial Guinea also needed penalties to beat Mali 6-5 after a goalless draw in extra-time to set a date with Senegal on Sunday from 21:00hrs CAT.

Equatorial Guinea celebrate

The other quarterfinalists — to be played on Saturday — are Gambia v hosts Cameroun (18:00hrs CAT) and Burkina Faso facing Tunisia (21:00hrs CAT).

He may be a world-class star who has won the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, but Mo Salah told CAFonline that he has only one trophy in mind and heart — the AFCON from his dear continent.

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I lost it in Gabon 2017 against Cameroon in the final, but I can assure you that it is the trophy that I want to win most,” he said prior to the tussle against Cote d’Ivoire.

“I work to win it and that is the story with all the Egyptian players present here. AFCON is an extremely difficult competition and from the start, you have seen that even the best teams were struggling to win.”

Closely marked Mo Salah

Côte d’Ivoire started brightly with their midfield three of Franck Kessie, Jean Michael Seri and Ibrahim Sangare controlling their play with Kessie having the first effort of the much talked about match when his long-range effort from distance agonizingly missed El Shenawy’s goal.

The Pharaohs weathered the early Elephants storm and they were denied by the woodwork, when Omar Khalid Marmoush’s curled effort smashed the frame of Badra Ali Sangare’s goal with 16 minutes on the clock.

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Badra Ali tipped over Mo Salah’s dipping strike for a corner, the Egyptian captain had turned away from his marker before firing at Sangare.

With an electric atmosphere inside the stadium the two teams cancelled each other in midfield while they continue to create openings.

Cote d’Ivoire played on the wide areas with Nicolas Pepe and veteran Max Alain Gradel providing an outlet. The Arsenal winger latched on to a long ball over the top cutting in infield to strike straight at the impressive El Shenawy.

The second half was a more open contest as the two African giants battle for a place in the quarter finals of the tournament. The Pharaohs continued to push forward with the eventual Man of the Match Mohamed Elneny coming close seven minutes after the restart.

The marauding midfielder’s shot on the edge of the box was deflected towards Ali Badra’s near post but the Ivorian keeper had a finger tip to it.

The two keepers were kept busy as the match opened up with the two coaches reshuffling their tactics. Pepe had a shot saved by El Shenawy on 75 minutes before Mostafa Mohamed curled an effort wide.

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Substitute Wilfred Zaha was denied by El Shenawy on 85 minutes following a brilliant move by another substitute Jeremie Boga.

With nothing separating the two sides in 90 minutes, extra time was couldn’t either to settle into penalties.

This was Côte d’Ivoire’s and Egypt’s 11th meeting at the finals and was  the most played fixture in the history of the competition.

Egypt have progressed on each of the previous four occasions when facing Côte d’Ivoire in the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations – two of those have come via penalty shootouts, with the second of those coming in the 2006 final (4-2 on penalties).

 

Côte d’Ivoire were unbeaten in their three games at this year’s AFCON (W2 D1), while the last time they avoided defeat in their opening four games in a single edition of the tournament was in 2015 when they went on to win it (beating Ghana on penalties in the final).

Egypt have been eliminated in their last two knockout stage games at the AFCON (1-2 v Cameroon in the 2017 final and 0-1 v South Africa in the 2019 Round of 16). Prior to this, they had progressed from 11 consecutive games in the knockout stages of the tournament, between 2006 and 2017.

In the other match, Equatorial Guinea reached the quarterfinals for the third time in as many participations, while Mali failed to imitate what they did in Cameroon 50 years ago when the reached the final in 1972.

Taken by anxiety and the desire to score in the first minutes, both teams failed to create real goal opportunities while Mali could have opened the scoring after the 32nd minute when RB Leipzig midfielder Amadou Handara came close to scoring but could not keep his balance to finish off a freekick.

The Malian Eagles tried a counter-attacking move to force their opponents into making mistakes and in the 37th minute, Mali striker Moussa Doumbia claimed a penalty kick, but the assistance of VAR overturned the penalty awarded.

Both teams tried their best in the second half to reach the quarterfinals with the Malians more consistent at the back, but they lacked more attacking firepower and wasted several chances.

Mohamed Camara missed the target after a perfect assist from Yves Bissouma after 58 minutes.

In the extra-time, both sides were cautious, and after 120 minutes, it was the penalties to decide in which Equatorial Guinea goalkeeper Jesus Owono was his side’s hero, saving two penalties to send NZalang Nacional to the final eight.—Pictures courtesy of CAFonline